A new nationwide suicide and mental health crisis hotline is scheduled to launch next week, and Maine officials say the state is on track to  implement the system here.

Federal officials have set a July 16 deadline for every state to implement the new 988 hotline so that it connects callers with local responders. Some other states have indicated that they may not meet that deadline. But Maine officials said they expect their system to be ready on time, largely because they are teaming up with an already existing hotline.

The new system is supposed to operate like the 911 emergency call line, but is intended specifically for those experiencing a mental health crisis. No matter where a person is in the country, the same three-digit number will connect a caller with a specialist who can provide support and also put the caller in touch with local resources to help.

Callers will be assessed by the specialist and, if the situation requires immediate attention, the caller will be directed to one of the state’s regional mobile crisis teams or to 911, if emergency services are required, said Jackie Farwell, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

The effort to create the 988 system began after a 30 percent increase in the nation’s suicide rate between 2000 and 2019, although the rate has declined slightly since. Maine’s suicide rate is consistently higher than the national average. In 2020, there were 16.4 suicides in Maine per 100,000 residents, while the national rate was 13.5, according to the most recent federal data.

The Federal Communications Commission two years ago ordered all states to set up 988 lines by this month. But many states have been slow to respond. As of early June, the FCC said, only 20 states had passed bills to establish 988 calling systems and only a handful had set up ways to pay for the service.


In Maine, the 988 system will piggyback with the Maine Crisis Line, a service of The Opportunity Alliance that offers support to those facing a behavioral crisis. The Maine Crisis Line, which has been in operation for four years, will continue to answer calls to its line (1-888-568-1112) and will also handle calls to 988.  The crisis line currently handles about 300 calls a day, officials said.

DHHS is spending $450,000 to implement the 988 number and will spend $13 million on crisis support services in the current two-year budget cycle. That includes $2.4 million for hotlines, including the Maine Crisis Line.

Behavioral health organizations said they are eager to see the new 988 system come on line.

“It’s going to be a great tool, although it will probably take some time to implement to full capacity,” said Jennifer Christian, project manager for the Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services, Maine.

Christian said a key asset will be having one number to call, regardless of location, just like people know to call 911 if they’re away from home and have an emergency.

“I’m hoping it’s a way to help people immediately, with more specific resources,” she said.

Farwell said Maine has been working on its implementation plan for 988 since April 2021 and is continuing to work with other organizations that will be part of the new system, including emergency medical groups, law enforcement, the mobile crisis teams and others.

“The adoption of 988 will ultimately provide a new, easily accessible ‘front door’ for Maine’s statewide crisis services,” she said, but “it will take time to establish new processes, build staff capacity and develop the components of the crisis system that are needed for the 988 crisis system to be fully realized. In the longer term, the vision is to continue to strengthen a robust crisis response system, across Maine and throughout the country.”

Farwell said the 988 system is part of $230 million in state and federal funds that DHHS is spending during the current two-year budget cycle to build up the care provider workforce and improve access to behavioral health services in Maine.

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