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Frontier Behavioral Health expects more calls as 9-8-8 suicide prevention hotline launches Saturday

Courtney Camyn, a crisis triage specialist at Frontier Behavioral Health, is shown Tuesday at her job working the Mental Health Crisis Line on Tuesday.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Courtney Camyn, a crisis triage specialist at Frontier Behavioral Health, is shown Tuesday at her job working the Mental Health Crisis Line on Tuesday. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Julien A. Luebbers The Spokesman-Review

Callers in crisis will be able to dial 9-8-8 to reach help nationwide beginning Saturday, and a local provider is preparing to ramp up its response.

Callers across the United States will be able to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing three digits instead of the current 10-digit Lifeline phone number, (800) 273-8255. The current Lifeline phone number will remain available.

Federal legislation approved in 2020 first designated 9-8-8 as a hotline, and it’s rolling out just under two years later. In 2021, the Washington Legislature passed a law designed to enhance behavioral health crisis response statewide and support suicide prevention services.

Frontier Behavioral Health will field incoming 9-8-8 calls from Spokane, Adams, Ferry, Lincoln, Pend Oreille and Stevens counties.

According to Jeff Thomas, Frontier’s chief executive officer, the Washington law increases the organization’s funding and enables it to better respond to what is expected to be an increased call volume.

The group is one of just three organizations in Washington identified as crisis call center hubs under the transition to the 9-8-8 number. The rest of the state is divided into two regions, one of which is King County and the other is everything else, each with a call center hub.

Frontier provides “a comprehensive array of behavioral health services, including outpatient, inpatient, and crisis” services, according to Thomas. The 9-8-8 line will be an expansion to the lines it operates, but will not fundamentally change Frontier’s role in the area.

Even though the number is changing, the underlying call center structure is not.

Frontier already operates the regional behavioral health crisis line, (877) 266-1818, and it will be using their current call center to take 9-8-8 calls. The organization also already receives calls from the 10-digit prevention number.

“In our case,” Thomas said, “it’s really going to be the same call center, just an expanded version of it, that is serving as the 9-8-8 line while also serving as the regional crisis line.”

Thomas emphasized that calls to the regional crisis line, 9-8-8, and the national Lifeline will all be routed to the same group of professionals. “There is no wrong number to call.”

The move to a three-digit designated number seeks to make access to mental health services easier and therefore more effective. “Undoubtedly, more people will be aware, more people will take advantage of that resource,” Thomas said.

“We are hiring staff and expanding our infrastructure in anticipation of that increase,” he said.

The 9-8-8 transition has put pressure, however, on an already strained job market.

“There’s a behavioral health workforce shortage crisis,” said Thomas. According to Thomas, the shortage extends across all aspects of behavioral health work. “It’s certainly had an impact on us.”

The money laid out by the state Legislature has allowed Frontier to better recruit and retain staff, Thomas said. Plus, recent technological developments allow call center operators to work remotely, “enabling us to expand the number of applicants, which has been very helpful.”

The state law has also allowed Frontier to assemble a new team of professionals: the Child, Youth and Family Mobile Crisis Team. The team will provide 24/7 services for youth and families.

“It’s going to be one more resource that this call center would have access to,” Thomas said.

Frontier’s call center fielded 46,000 calls in 2021.

When a person calls 9-8-8, or any of the other lines connected to Frontier, they will be greeted by an extensively trained call operator, whose job is provide mental health services.

The call staff members are not trained to provide outpatient session therapy, but instead to determine the level of crisis and what resources are needed, Thomas said. From there, operators can decide on a range of support, up to and including dispatching crisis responders to talk to a caller in-person immediately.

These Designated Crisis Responders are trained to evaluate individuals under the Involuntary Treatment Act, to determine if their situation necessitates involuntary detainment for inpatient care.

In the most extreme cases, call center staff may refer a caller to 9-1-1, or make the call themselves.

The move to 9-8-8 could give 9-1-1 operators another option in handling cases of people in crisis, if they were able to route calls to the crisis call center.

The Spokane Police Department’s Behavioral Health Unit also hopes the 9-8-8 hotline will aid in its operations.

The unit, launched in 2020, is designed “to maintain a safe and healthy environment for our community by identifying the people in crisis and high utilizers of services and responding to their needs,” said Spokane police Sgt. Jay Kernkamp.

Kernkamp said he is hopeful that “calls that 9-1-1 or law enforcement or the co-respondents (of BHU) don’t need to respond to” will be handled by mobile crisis units.

According to Thomas, this arrangement is being discussed at state and local levels.

“It would need to be developed, and there would be a lot of considerations, so nothing’s been decided at this point,” said Thomas. “There will be a lot to it.”

Kernkamp said he hopes the new system will lead to better service for those in crisis.

“A three-digit number is a lot easier to remember,” Kernkamp said. “It’s good to connect all those (Frontier) services and resources together so that we’re able to triage what exactly is needed for those individuals.”

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