Sedgwick County prepares for launch of new 988 mental health hotline

By Nicole Klevanskaya / The Wichita Eagle

For several years Sedgwick County has had a higher average suicide rate per 100,000 people than the national average.

In 2020 Sedgwick County recorded its highest rate, according to data from Sedgwick County and KU School of Medicine-Wichita. During a year of lockdowns, isolation and closures, there were approximately 20.4 suicides per 100,000 Sedgwick County residents, which equates to 105 individuals.

Mental illness was linked to more than half of those 2020 deaths, with 55% of the individuals who died having a known history of mental illness.

Amid a suicide rate that has peaked and rising mental health concerns in the United States, the nation is taking a step to make it easier for those who need it to get help.

Starting July 16, anyone in Sedgwick County — and across the county — who is experiencing mental-health-related distress or worrying for a loved one’s mental health will be able to dial 988 to receive support from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The new number is intended as an easier way for people to remember where to call in times of need, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The lifeline’s current number, 800-273-8255, will remain available even after 988’s launch.

Here’s a look at Sedgwick County’s preparation for the launch of 988 and mental health in the Wichita area, as well as what to know about the new three-digit number and how to access resources that can help you now.

SEDGWICK COUNTY’S PREPARATION FOR 988

A recent Rand Corporation survey of public health officials on 988 readiness found that “fewer than half expressed confidence their jurisdiction was prepared in terms of financing, staffing, or infrastructure.”

That’s not the case in Sedgwick County, said Jennifer Wilson, Comcare of Sedgwick County’s director of crisis services.

Comcare has been taking calls for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline for years, and is the only mental health center in Sedgwick County to do so for the lifeline, Wilson said. In addition to providing national support, Comcare has its own 24-hour crisis hotline, 316-660-7500, which will connect callers to local resources.

With the launch of 988, none of those options will go away.

“We’re not changing any way of how we’re already providing 24-hour crisis intervention services,” Wilson said. “We’re just adding an additional way for people to get connected.”

Wilson said Comcare expects to receive more calls because of the promotion of 988. The center has added five staff members to account for this and to follow up with callers, thanks to funding from the state of Kansas and from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s 988 State Planning Grant.

“Telephone-based crisis intervention allows us to provide immediate intervention to someone who’s experiencing a mental health crisis at the time of crisis,” Wilson said. “It gives us the opportunity to be able to deescalate a crisis and screen for suicide to hopefully be able to move towards our goal of zero suicides in Sedgwick County.”

To mark the lifeline’s launch, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly will visit Wichita on Monday, July 11, for a 988 bill-signing celebration, which will be broadcast on Sedgwick County’s YouTube and Facebook pages.

“I am so proud that Sedgwick County’s COMCARE Crisis Center is playing a crucial role in this 9-8-8 hotline. Our team of behavioral health professionals always stands ready to answer calls for help,” said Sedgwick County Commission Chairman David Dennis in a statement. “COMCARE’s team of trained specialists helps those in a mental health crisis and is able to provide support to assist the caller through this critical time. The ultimate goal is to prevent even one suicide in our community.”

MENTAL HEALTH IN WICHITA

The 988 rollout comes at a time in which local cases of mental health-related distress have increased.

The Mental Health America’s website has multiple tests that anyone can take to screen for depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar, psychosis, addiction and more.

Eric Litwiller, director of development and communications at the Mental Health Association of South Central Kansas, said online screenings in Wichita for anxiety increased by 650% and screenings for depression increased by 900% in 2020.

Litwiller said that in the Wichita area, people tend to be more informed on responding to physical crises than to mental health crises.

Although it is not the only option, dialing 988 is a viable way to help someone who is experiencing a mental health crisis — and one that is easy to remember, Litwiller said.

“I even could not tell you off the top of my head the national suicide hotline number,” Litwiller said. “Having a simple, easy way to remember a three-digit number addresses that issue and hopefully beefs up the parity and the ability of the general public to respond when they see a crisis.”

WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT 988

988 is not only for suicide-related crisis. The number is there for anyone in need of support for suicidal, mental health and/or substance use crisis, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration says.

Those who call 988 will be routed to their local lifeline network crisis center, based on their area code. For those with a 316 area code, that will be Comcare. However, if a local crisis center is not available, the caller will be routed to a national backup crisis center.

Either way, the caller will be connected with a trained crisis counselor who will “listen to the caller, understand how their problem is affecting them, provide support, and share resources if needed,” the agency says.

Those in need will also be able to talk through the Lifeline’s online chat at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat/ or text 988 to get support.

LOCAL RESOURCES AND WHAT TO DO NOW

Until July 16, if you or a loved on is in need of mental health help, call 800-273-8255 or visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s chat at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/.

For local support before and after the launch of the 988 dialing code, call Comcare by calling 316-660-7500.

There are also several resources in the Wichita area that can provide mental health support for you and your loved ones:

Contributing: Eagle archives


This article was republished here with the permission of: The Wichita Eagle

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