Terri Lavely, board member and field advocate for the Vermont chapter of American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, is contributing to the oversight of the 988 rollout. She testified on behalf of this bill as well as for a previous bill it coincided with, S.69, for the House and Senate appropriations committees. “This is a huge step forward, and it’s been such a long time coming,” Lavely said. “(We need to) get people to the services that they need and the responses that they need when they need it. It doesn’t always come at 9 in the morning when your therapist is in the office. Sometimes it’s at 2 in the morning when you’re just struggling with your own thoughts.”
Vermont will join the rest of the United States in establishing 988 as an emergency phone number for anyone experiencing mental health problems or emergencies. The phone number will be operational and available from July 16. VTDigger/Natalie Williams photo illustration In July, Vermont will join the rest of the country in unveiling a new three-digit number to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, thanks to state budget funds. By July 16, all states will be compelled by the federal government to provide the three-digit number, 988, as a mental health service. Gov. Phil Scott signed H.740, legislation that maintains government financing for Vermont’s Lifeline personnel and infrastructure, on Thursday.
The Federal Communications Commission, which established 988 as an easy-to-remember nationwide dialing code in 2020, is requiring all phone service providers to direct all 988 calls to the Lifeline starting on the number’s comprehensive nationwide launch date, July 16. All covered providers are required by the Federal Communications Commission to implement 10-digit dialing in areas that use 988 as the first three numbers in seven-digit phone numbers. “We’ve been preparing for this moment, specifically since 2019,” Krompf said.
In preparation for the launch of the three-digit number, Vermont made the switch for all dialed calls to require typing in a full 10-digit number — even for local 802 calls — in October 2021. That was because Vermont is one of several states that had existing phone numbers beginning with 988, said Alison Krompf, deputy commissioner of the Vermont Department of Mental Health. “Not every state had that, but we were one that did,” Krompf said. “It made it so that everyone got a little alert on their phone that said, like ‘starting on Oct. 1,’ and that actually drummed up a lot of interest.” Another element of Vermont’s 988 launch plan that not every state will necessarily benefit from is 24/7 service.
The first grant came from a federal agency called the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Since 2019, Vermont has established two certified call centers that operate through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — though currently, the Lifeline is accessible only by calling 800-273-8255 or by way of a 10-digit number for the individual Vermont-based units. Vibrant, the Lifeline provider, is predicting a 30% increase in use of the line with 988 as the call number, Lavely said.
Around that time, Krompf began working for the Department of Mental Health, and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline reached out to the department because Vermont did not yet have any call centers managing the hotline at that time. The Department of Mental Health initially received a capacity-building grant for these services in 2019 to onboard staff and get the Lifeline project off the ground, then received a planning grant, at which point it needed to find other funding avenues to sustain staffing and infrastructure.
The two affiliated Vermont-based organizations that receive calls on the national hotline are Northwestern Counseling and Support Services and Northeast Kingdom Human Services. Ten community mental health centers have their own crisis lines. “The biggest shift from my perspective, about it being a 988 number just like a 911, is it’s putting mental health on the same playing field as physical health,” she said. “This deserves every much of having the availability of 24/7 response as any other challenge or affliction.”