A Los Angeles County Public Health Department worker answers calls on a mental health hotline. Courtesy of LA County Department of Public Health.

Lee esta historia en Español

From 2016 to 2020, suicide was the seventh leading cause of premature death for Long Beach residents, city Health Department data shows. Starting today, people experiencing mental health crises across the country have a new hotline to turn to for help: 988.

The federal number, which people can call or text, has been championed by mental health advocates as an alternative to 911 for people experiencing mental health emergencies.

“When a person is in a mental health crisis, there are very specific skills that mental health clinicians and crisis responders have that de-escalate different situations,” Long Beach Health Department Director Kelly Colopy told the Post in a phone interview Friday.

Colopy said there are often better outcomes in resolving a mental health crisis when the situation is handled by trained mental health professionals rather than uniformed—and armed—police officers.

“Sometimes a uniform is not how to help somebody calm down,” she added.

Then-President Donald Trump signed the bipartisan bill establishing the three-digit number as a national hotline in October 2020. The new number is accompanied by a website featuring numerous mental health resources.

The National Suicide Prevention and Mental Health Crisis Lifeline remains in operation at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).

A need for mental health services

Between 2016 and 2020, California’s National Suicide Prevention Lifeline call centers experienced a 67% increase in calls, CalMatters reports. Despite the increase, the in-state centers have been able to answer 90% of calls.

In-state call centers in Vermont, Texas and Wyoming, by comparison, have answer rates of 52%, 40% and 16%, respectively.

Each year, Long Beach agencies receive around 2,000 suicide-related calls from people in a mental health crisis, Colopy said. There are thousands more calls related to mental health issues not related to suicide, she added.

The number of suicides in Long Beach decreased each year from 2017 to 2020, according to Health Department data. In 2020, the city reported 39 suicides, compared to 48 in 2017.

Data for 2021 is not yet available, Colopy said.

While suicides have been decreasing, Colopy noted that there has been a significant increase in the number of people dealing with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Similarly, the percentage of the city’s residents experiencing homelessness who suffer from mental illness has increased, she said.

The Health Department has convened a mental health advisory group that is expected to release a report before the end of the year on how best to streamline and increase access to mental health services in the city, Colopy said.

Calls to 988 are being fielded throughout the state by Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services. The health provider announced it was awarded the contract and subsequent grant funding in February 2021.

The city is in the process of designing an alternative crisis response model through the Health Department to be integrated into the 988 system, Colopy said, adding that it is expected to go live early next year.

“There will be a mental health crisis clinician and a public health nurse as part of the team,” Colopy said. “It will start out as a pilot … and, right now, the design of how that would connect to 988 is not in place, but we’d anticipate that at some point.”

For now, if an in-person response is required as a result of a 988 call, mental health professionals will be dispatched through the LA County Department of Public Health, Colopy said.

If a situation is deemed unsafe for mental health professionals alone, which would include incidents involving weapons, police and fire personnel would still be dispatched to the scene, Colopy said.

Other mental health service for Long Beach residents

The LA County Public Health Department is the provider of mental health services in Long Beach and has its own 24-hour hotline available seven days a week: 1-800-854-7771 (option 1). Services though the line include deployment of crisis evaluation teams, information and referrals, and counseling.

The county number also includes an emotional support “warm line” (option 2) from 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily and a veteran line (option 3) from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

About five years ago, in partnership with the county, the Long Beach Health Department opened the Behavioral Health Urgent Care Center with services administered by Stars Behavioral Health Group at 3210 Long Beach Blvd. The facility is staffed with doctors, nurses, therapists and peer counselors 24 hours a day.

The facility offers a host of services, including crisis stabilization for up to 12 adults and adolescents (ages 13-17) at a time. Clients can stay up to 24 hours as they deal with their crisis and are only released in daylight hours, in a model designed to prevent psychiatric hospitalizations, according to the website.

Walk-in clients can be evaluated daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and receive medications on a “very short-term basis until they are connected to ongoing psychiatric care,” the website states.

The urgent care can be reached at 562-548-6565.

As the city continues its work to expand its mental health resources, Colopy said the addition of the national 988 hotline will save lives.

“To be able to have a single call line—one that is staffed by crisis responders and mental health clinicians who can actually have the conversations that are needed, connect people to services, de-escalate in that moment—is really an incredible opportunity,” Colopy said. “I’m excited for the possibilities.”

Why people with 562 area code will soon have to start dialing all 10 digits for local calls

Brandon Richardson is a reporter and photojournalist for the Long Beach Post and Long Beach Business Journal.