The 988 phone system is designed to help those experiencing a mental health crisis. It will enhance access and build services to help reduce suicide and overdose in Georgia. 

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“Our state is ready,” Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities Commissioner Judy Fitzgerald said, adding that this easy-to-remember number will help frame Georgians’ understanding of the true demand for behavioral health services. 

“Right now, we are working under federally mandated and accelerated timelines to prepare for 988's rollout,” Fitzgerald said. “When the dialing code goes live on July 16, it is day one of a job that will never truly be done.”

Calls to 988 will be answered by counselors trained in suicide prevention.

Earlier this year, the General Assembly also expanded access to crisis services as part of its focus on mental health. 

The Georgia Behavioral Health Reform and Innovation Commission, a joint committee of the General Assembly, concluded in 2021 that parity in physical and mental healthcare has been an ongoing issue that affects Georgia families.

“HB 1013 requires that mental health services be offered and requires, in section one, that it be offered in the same way that physical illness is paid for by our insurance carriers, whether they be private, state, Medicaid, Medicare, PeachCare,” said bill co-sponsor Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur). “All health care providers are now obligated, and how do we enforce that for the first time?”

Oliver said around 10.6 million people, or 10%, of Georgians have been diagnosed with mental illness.

“Of that 10%, there's probably closer to 1% who have a severe, psychotic crisis episode repeatedly in their lives,” she said.

While 988 is not yet active across all communications access points in the United States, Georgia's Crisis and Access Line is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 365 days a year for immediate access to routine or crisis services.

The GCAL number is: 1-800-715-4225.

When people call, text, or chat 988, they will be connected to trained counselors that are part of the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline network. These trained counselors will listen, understand how the callers problems are affecting them, provide support, and connect them to resources if necessary.

The current Lifeline phone number will always remain available to people in emotional distress or suicidal crisis, even after 988 is launched nationally.

The Lifeline’s network of over 200 crisis centers has been in operation since 2005, and has been proven to be effective. It’s the counselors at these local crisis centers who answer the contacts the Lifeline receives every day. Numerous studies have shown that callers feel less suicidal, less depressed, less overwhelmed and more hopeful after speaking with a Lifeline counselor.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available as well at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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This story comes to Stanley R. Boxer GA through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a non-profit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.

Ellen Eldridge is a reporter for Georgia Public Broadcasting.