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Calling 988 to talk to someone about suicide? The connection could be way off

Since July 2022, anyone experiencing emotional distress or suicidal thoughts can dial 988, a new national hotline that connects callers to local crisis centers.

But the nationwide mental health phone line has experienced some bad connections. And some can be the difference between life and death.

Each time a person calls 988 on their cell phone, the call is routed to a city associated with the phone’s area code — but not where the caller necessarily lives. That leaves the caller talking to a 988 person potentially thousands of miles away who is unaware of the caller’s local mental health crisis services — and unable to dispatch help.

“If you live in Los Angeles County and have a different cell phone area code, you won’t be able to access LA County’s call center when you call 988,” explained Fourth District L.A. County Supervisor and board chair Janice Hahn. “This is a serious problem, because only L.A. County’s call centers can connect that person to L.A. County help.”

Hahn said in some instances, 988 callers are turned away because they are calling from an out of county area code.

And the problem is statewide. “We can attest that routing by area code is causing challenges with connecting 988 callers to local resources across the state,” said a statement released on Friday, Aug. 11, by Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services. “Routing calls by a caller’s area code is an issue when a help-seeker wants to connect with local crisis support services like a mobile crisis response team which is locally managed and deployed.”

Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services provides the service in L.A. County and 11 other 988 crisis call centers. The one in L.A. County also handles calls from Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura and Imperial counties.

Another communication breakdown occurs if for some reason the call is routed by using the person’s ZIP code. If that person has moved, the crisis counselor can be from the city of an old address, putting help far away.

Rep. Tony Cardenas, D-Panorama City, has written a 988 fix-it bill that received the endorsement of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, Aug. 8.

The Pacoima-born congressman spoke to Hahn during a trip she made to Washington D.C. and introduced H.R. 4974, the Local 988 Response Act of 2023, in the House of Representatives on July 27. The bill has been referred to the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

In short, the bill would require all cell phone carriers to direct 988 calls, and messages left on 988 call lines, to the call center geographically closest to the caller — instead of using their phone’s area code, Cardenas said. The East San Fernando Valley lawmaker said the result will be quicker responses by mental health professionals.

Calls routed by area code are “slowing access to resources on the ground,” Cardenas said in a statement. “This creates a problem if a caller needs to be connected with a greater continuum of care, such as a crisis response team or crisis center.”

A far away responder can still be helpful, calm the person down and give advice, Cardenas said. But local responders can do more.

“In a situation where all of a sudden someone is contemplating suicide, let’s say he or she took an action and they have a razor blade. It makes it a more fluid response, especially when we have to get someone to this person, now,” he said.

A non-local counselor would have to put the person on hold, or transfer the call to the right state or county, wasting precious time. “This requires an additional step — a handoff to the person contemplating suicide or having a mental health episode,” he said.

Here’s how Cardenas’ bill works:

The nearest cell phone would be pinged by the caller and then the call would be routed to the local mental health crisis center that takes 988 calls. Called geo-routing, a mental health professional on the line would be familiar with the area or county. The caller’s address or identity would not be revealed. Geo-routing is different than geo-location, which identifies a person’s whereabouts.

“They’d stay as anonymous as they would choose to be,” Cardenas said.

He said he’s heard from several wireless carriers who told him they possess the necessary software program and that making the change would not be difficult to do.

But he doesn’t want to leave it up to each carrier to act voluntarily, especially if one acts immediately, the other one takes a long time or another one doesn’t act at all. His bill would require the Federal Communications Commission to make the changes.

So far, the bill has the following co-sponsors: Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-PA; Grace Napolitano, D-La Puente; Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento; Ann Kuster, D-NH and Seth Moulton, D-MA.

“In L.A. County, officials were getting many complaints from people that they were going to their area code city, not where they were located,” said Napolitano on Friday. “This bill makes it so somebody can help you locally.”

Fifth District L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, a Republican, said she believes the bill will gain more Republican support as it moves through the House. “This is a bipartisan issue. This bill will have a strong impact throughout the state of California,” she said.

Cardenas says the bill, along with another bill that would provide states with more funding for 988 call centers, also raises awareness. Many do not know that 988 is available or are embarrassed to use it, he said.

“For most families in America, this is foreign to them,” Cardenas said. “I want to make sure we are addressing mental health as much as we address physical health issues. Because there are a lot of stigmas around it.”

The bill would also:

• Require carriers to allow calls and texts to 988 even if the plan is inactive or the carrier is experiencing service interruptions.

• Require multi-line systems, like hotel and office phones, to support direct dialing of 988 rather than requiring a caller to dial 9 or another number before dialing 988.


Source: Orange County Register

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