HELENA — Starting Saturday, people in Montana – and the rest of the U.S. – will be able to use a new three-digit dialing code to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Advocates say the launch of the 988 number will be a big day.
“It’s a huge step forward for us and for all the families that we serve, just to know that help is that much closer,” said Matt Kuntz, executive director of NAMI Montana.
On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Gianforte and other leaders from around Montana gathered in Helena, encouraging people to spread the word about the new number.
“I’m filled with optimism about the promise of this new initiative,” Gianforte said. “To any Montanan that may be struggling today, know that you are not alone. There are folks who are ready to help, and you can find them by calling 988.”
Three call centers in Montana (https://www.ktvh.com/news/montana-crisis-call-centers-could-see-more-callers-after-988-launch-this-month) – Voices of Hope in Great Falls, The Help Center in Bozeman and Western Montana Mental Health Center in Missoula – have trained crisis counselors ready to answer when someone calls the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Over the last three years, they’ve averaged 10,000 calls each year. More than 90% of those are handled in-state, with the rest sent to another call center through a national backup network.
There will be no difference in how the centers handle calls to 988, though they are preparing for a higher volume of calls. Gianforte announced Tuesday that the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services will use a $400,000 grant to help support their staffing at the call centers. The goal is to make sure they can continue to handle at least 90% of calls locally.
Matt Taylor, with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, said Montana has one of the best rates in the country for connecting Lifeline calls with in-state call centers. That makes him optimistic the centers in this state will be ready to handle it if they see a jump in calls once 988 is available.
In 2020, the CDC reported Montana had the third highest rate of suicide of any state in the U.S. – 26 per 100,000 residents. Only Wyoming and Alaska had higher rates. Over the last ten years, DPHHS reports suicide has been the number-two cause of death in Montana for children ages 10 to 14, people between 15 and 24 and those from 25 to 44.
Kuntz says a big part of NAMI’s work is helping people know what to do when someone’s in crisis. He says having 988 available is an important step.
“To have a number that people can just know and memorize and have it be on the tip of their tongue for when they need it is huge,” he said.
During Tuesday’s event, leaders unveiled a series of posters promoting 988, each designed by art students at Montana State University. Bruce Barnhart, who helped coordinate the project, says the roughly 90 students had serious discussions about the issue of suicide with prevention specialists.
“What they strived for was to use their talent to create powerful visual artwork in an attempt to bring more awareness about the Montana 988 number,” he said. “They created artwork with messages of hope and reassurance.”
The state is planning to use those posters and other designs as they bring attention to 988 after the launch.
Taylor said he hopes that, in the future, 988 will become as universal as 911.
“It’s more than just being an easy number to remember,” he said. “It’s also about providing more equitable services across the nation and in Montana. It’s about putting mental health crisis services at the same level of accessibility as our emergency medical services and law enforcement.”
Taylor said there are other aspects of the 988 project besides the number and the call centers, like mobile crisis response teams and crisis stabilization services, that will also have to grow in Montana going forward.
If you or a loved one are having thoughts of suicide, please reach out.
The Montana Suicide Lifeline is 1 (800) 273-8255, or you can text “MT” to 741741. The service is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The 1 (800) number will remain active even after 988 launches nationwide.