Greg Gianforte speaking
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte speaks at an event in Helena to announce the roll-out of the 988 Suicide Prevention and Mental Health Crisis Lifeline on Tuesday, July 12, 2022. Credit: Mara Silvers / MTFP

Beginning Saturday, July 16, Montana will transition to a new three-digit suicide prevention hotline to help callers find emergency mental health resources.

The nationwide launch of the new 988 number will replace the country’s previous suicide prevention number, 1-800-273-8255, a change that mental health advocates have said is overdue and will help make services more accessible. Callers will be routed through regional 24-hour call centers in Great Falls, Bozeman and Missoula, where crisis workers  will help people find the nearest services.

“At two in the morning when I’m hopefully asleep, there’s somebody sitting in that office ready to take a call and ready to walk with somebody through a very difficult journey from darkness to light,” said Matt Taylor, with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at a Tuesday presentation in Helena. “They’re at the front line of this message of hope, health, healing and recovery.”

The national 988 number was authorized through a federal law passed by Congress in 2020. Montana’s then-U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte helped introduce the bill. Gianforte, now governor, emphasized its importance at Tuesday’s event, calling suicide “a tragic epidemic” in the state.

“Montanans manning the phones at these centers are trained crisis workers ready to provide confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Gianforte said. “Why is this so important? Well, when an individual is in crisis, time is of the essence. They need help right away.”

Montana had the third-higest rate of suicides in the nation in 2020, behind Alaska and Wyoming, according to the most recent data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Suicide accounted for roughly 26 of every 100,000 deaths in the state, and was the ninth-most common cause of death behind heart disease, cancer, COVID-19 and other fatalities.

During the past three years, Gianforte said, Montana’s crisis call lines have averaged about 10,000 calls annually. The state health department has allocated $400,000 in federal grant funding to bolster staffing at the three 988 call centers, operated by Voices of Hope in Great Falls, Help Center, Inc. in Bozeman and Western Montana Mental Health in Missoula. The centers will be staffed by crisis volunteers and employees with a minimum of 50 hours of training, according to Mandy St. Aubyn, a representative of the call centers who spoke at the event on Tuesday.

“The nice thing about talking to someone locally is they know our challenges. They know our challenges and our resources. They know resources pop up and resources go down, and family members and loved ones need that information quickly to be able to save lives.”

Matt Kuntz, NAMI Montana

The governor’s office also said Tuesday that the 988 number will offer a specific prompt for veterans: dialing “1” will route them to the national Veterans Crisis Line.

Matt Kuntz of NAMI Montana, which advocates for mental health resources, expressed optimism on Tuesday that the shorter 988 number and local call centers would help Montanans at risk of suicide locate resources more quickly. 

“It needs to be easier,” he said. “The nice thing about talking to someone locally is they know our challenges. They know our challenges and our resources. They know resources pop up and resources go down, and family members and loved ones need that information quickly to be able to save lives.”

St. Aubyn said Tuesday that staffers answering 988 calls will have access to a database of roughly 6,000 health and human services resources available on Montana’s non-emergency 211 website to find the most appropriate services, including drop-in centers and in-patient treatment for mental health and substance use issues. Historically, St. Aubyn said, roughly 72% of calls to crisis lines are de-escalated without having to refer people to crisis stabilization centers or emergency services. 

In much of Montana, in-person emergency crisis services and psychiatric treatment options are limited. On Tuesday, Department of Public Health and Human Services spokesperson Jon Ebelt said there are currently 41 beds at hospitals and clinics across the state for individuals experiencing a mental health crisis, some of which are for less than 24-hour stays.  

Temporary emergency detention beds for people who are a threat to themselves or others are even more limited. As of Tuesday, Ebelt said, there are four beds available for people in such crises at contracted facilities in Polson and Hamilton. Other crisis facilities in Helena, Butte, Bozeman and Missoula have closed temporarily or permanently since 2020.

The state is in the process of adding mobile crisis units that can respond to people experiencing a mental health crisis. Ebelt said those units currently exist in Butte-Silver Bow and Cascade, Flathead, Gallatin, Lewis and Clark, Lincoln and Missoula counties. Additional mobile crisis teams in Park and Yellowstone counties are in development.

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Mara writes about health and human services stories happening in local communities, the Montana statehouse and the court system. She also produces the Shared State podcast in collaboration with MTPR and YPR. Before joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked in podcast and radio production at Slate and WNYC. She was born and raised in Helena, MT and graduated from Seattle University in 2016.