Summit County officials get ready for Colorado’s July 16 launch of national 988 crisis hotline

Emergency dispatchers work inside the Summit County 911 Center on March 27, 2020. Similar to the local dispatch center, the 988 crisis hotline will staff trained professionals ready to intervene in sensitive situations.
Jerry Del Valle/Courtesy photo

This Saturday, Colorado plans on joining the national 988 crisis hotline. People battling suicidal thoughts, a mental health crisis or drug-related crisis can call 988 and speak with trained counselors.

That said, in Colorado, people with out-of-state area codes should call Colorado Crisis Services at 1-844-493-8255, Colorado Department of Human Services’ 988 Enterprise and Crisis Line program manager Kelly Bowman said. The national 988 number will reroute their calls to the region connected to their area code, she said. Roughly 25% of Coloradans have out-of-state area codes, she noted.

To receive more personal service from counselors familiar with Colorado, those people should call Colorado Crisis Services, she suggested. Colorado Crisis Services provides a network of walk-in centers, crisis stabilization units, crisis respite service and mobile crisis services.

On July 16, Colorado plans on joining the nationwide switch to 988. Previously, the only nationwide number was the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 that was established in 2005. The Lifeline number will still operate, but both it and 988 will connect callers with the same network of counselors.

Bowman said, both statewide and nationally, officials have prepped for a soft rollout with little fanfare. The nationwide number required many states to update their communication infrastructure and work out kinks, she said, and so the plan is to blast the number through media campaigns next summer once states, call centers and 911 centers have a better grasp of the new system.

“Everyone will know 988 like they know 911,” Building Hope Executive Director Jen McAtamney said.

The new number aims to simplify dialing and normalize mental health support, she said, adding that it will help ease access and remove stigma around seeking mental health care.

McAtamney said what constitutes a mental health crisis has a broader range than some realize. A student could be too stressed to speak to their parents about their grades; parents may call about a child experiencing such a mental health crisis to the point they won’t leave their room; or someone could be experiencing suicidal thoughts, she said.  The Lifeline and 988 accepts calls from anyone who is suicidal or in emotional distress, including someone experiencing a substance use crisis, the Colorado Behavioral Health Administration states on its website.

Counselors will attempt to stabilize the situation over the phone. If they can’t, a mobile crisis response team will be sent, McAtamney said. In Summit County, that usually means a plain-clothes response from the Summit County Sheriff’s Office.

In 2021, the Summit County Sheriff’s Office’s Systemwide Mental Assessment Response Team, or SMART, only responded to five calls from the Colorado Crisis Line, Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said. As of Tuesday, it had responded to six calls in 2022, according to numbers from the Sheriff’s Office.

Notably, the SMART program made zero arrests in 2021. McAtamney characterized their response as “person-centered,” with plain-clothes responders focused on stabilizing the situation without force. In 2021, the SMART program gave out 22 vouchers for mental health services for people without the means to afford it.

Statewide, Bowman said less than 2% of calls to Colorado Crisis Services resulted in a mobile response, which means in over 98% of calls, the counselors were able to help the caller.

In the summer of 2021, Colorado passed Senate Bill 21-154, a bill to create and fund Colorado’s 988 crisis hotline. The bill stipulates it would fund crisis outreach, stabilization and acute care to people calling the 988 crisis hotline.

Because of the quieter nationwide approach, Bowman said Colorado’s 988 call centers are “not really expecting a significant spike right away.” Hiring for counselors is still ongoing across the state, she said, but the state is prepared for its planned rollout.

Even if 988 has a few hiccups, FitzSimons said he believes Summit County prepared without it. He said he hopes it works out, since it could solve problems related to mental health services, “but if it doesn’t work, we’re prepared to continue the way we have.”

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