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Maryland prepares for suicide prevention phone switchover

John Lee

This weekend individuals struggling with suicidal thoughts are encouraged to call or text a new phone number 988 to connect with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

In Maryland, the old phone number of 211 will automatically route callers to the new hotline starting on July 16. The hotline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

“Maryland 211 will still be a viable phone number in the state, with a plethora of options for people who need help,” said Chase Cook, a spokesperson with the Maryland Department of Health.

In October 2020, former President Donald Trump signed the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act into law, requiring the new three digit code to replace a 10-digit phone number. The Joe Biden Administration carved out a $1.9 million grant for Maryland from the American Rescue Plan Act, a coronavirus relief bill to support the behavioral health crisis centers.

State lawmakers earmarked $5.5 million each year for the effort in legislation passed this year for the hotline. The goal is to divert individuals from accidentally calling 911 which is reserved for medical emergencies and public safety issues.

The state and federal money will be spent to hire more workers across the state’s eight crisis phone line centers, support staff training and improve coordination between 911 and 988 operators. There are 140 call agents statewide.

In 2020, there were 42,934 callers to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline residing in Maryland. That’s an increase of 3% between 2019 and 2020. That same year, there were 582 deaths due to suicide.

Maryland’s answer rate, which means calls for behavioral crisis help are picked up by agents, was 82% between January and March this year, according to data collected by federal contractor Vibrant Emotional Health.

By comparison, the answer rate for Washington D.C. was 90% while it was 83% in Pennsylvania, 79% in New Jersey and 84% in Virginia. States such as Ohio, New York and Texas struggled with answer rates below 64%, data shows.

Kristen Mosbrucker is a digital news editor and producer for WYPR. @k_mosbrucker
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