RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)-States are grappling with growing pains ahead of the nationwide launch of a new mental health crisis hotline. In some ways, Virginia appears to be ahead of the curve.

Starting July 16, Virginians can call or text 988 to connect with trained counselors that are part of the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline network. The current phone number (1-800-273-8255) will remain available but stakeholders hope the three-digit code will make assistance more accessible.

PRS CrisisLink Senior Director Laura Clark said they expect to answer 988 calls from 85 percent of Virginia and serve as a back-up center for parts of the country struggling to meet local demand.

After July 16, Clark said annual calls are expected to more than double. She said states are in different places when it comes to increasing staff but they’ve already seen overflow calls start to drop.

“It would be kind of silly for me not to be concerned for my own staff and how we’re going to respond to that volume,” Clark said. “However, even in states that are struggling, we are better off today than we were last year.” 

For their in-state service, Clark said they’ve increased staff to the appropriate level but some are still training.

“So unfortunately we will not have our entire staff ready to go for July 16th for our local service but we are about 80 to 90 percent there so we’re feeling pretty comfortable with where we’re at,” Clark said.

Clark said their goal is to answer 95 percent of calls from Virginia phone numbers within 20 seconds.

“That is highly dependent on capacity and it also depends on where a phone number is from,” Clark said.

Clark said CrisisLink runs one of two centers serving the commonwealth. She said out-of-state numbers will not be routed to Virginia-based centers initially, as that will require additional federal approval, but those in need of additional services will eventually be put in touch with in-state providers.

According to the National Academy for State Health Policy, Virginia is one of at least 20 states that have enacted laws preparing for the launch of 988 and one of four states that have allowed an added fee on phone bills to fund the expanded system.

“Virginia still has some challenges we have to face with the call centers but we were the leader in legislation to support our call centers and it has put us in a better spot than a number of our partners,” said Bill Howard, director of crisis services and supports for the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.

Howard said most 988 calls can be resolved over the phone but some will require more intensive, in-person services. Compared to other “states of best practice,” he said Virginia still needs to improve its mobile crisis response and community-based stabilization services.

“Some portions of our state are more developed with our mobile crisis response teams. Some portions of our state are still developing those teams,” Howard said.

Clark said the state’s mobile crisis response is in the “very early stages,” meaning law enforcement will likely continue to play a role in the most serious mental health calls for the foreseeable future. That’s something state lawmakers are trying to change but Clark said licensed clinicians are hard to find nationwide.

Clark said there will be a more concentrated marketing push to spread awareness about 988 next summer, giving states more time to build up these services.