Big Sky Connection The new suicide crisis hotline number, 988, launches Saturday and is designed to be easier to remember. Montana has the third-highest suicide rate in the country, according to 2020 numbers. Comments from John Tabb, suicide prevention program manager, Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. 

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Eric Tegethoff

A new hotline number is launching to help stem the growing suicide crisis, in Montana and across the United States.

Starting Saturday, people facing a mental health crisis can call 988, a simplification of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline ten-digit number.

John Tabb, suicide prevention program manager for the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, said 988 is an easily remembered number, which will connect people to trained crisis workers at any time, day or night. He noted they stabilize individuals over the phone 80% of the time.

"In a state like Montana, where we're resource constrained because of our rural communities and distances, that's an incredibly powerful thing," Tabb asserted. "Anyone in the state can call and in all likelihood, they're going to be able to be stabilized by one of these crisis callers."

The suicide crisis is particularly acute in Montana. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's most recent data from 2020, the state ranked third in suicide deaths per capita.

The launch of 988 in Montana involves coordination with three lifeline call centers: Voices of Hope in the eastern part of the state, Help Center 211 in the southwest, and the Western Montana Mental Health Center in the northwest.

The 988 program is designed as a mental health complement to 911. Tabb pointed out people in a mental health crisis who call 911 get a law enforcement response, which often isn't ideal for their situation.

"988 really is kind of the first step in getting a response system that allows them to be placed in contact with providers rather than law enforcement, when it's appropriate," Tabb noted.

Tabb added more services are needed to address the country's mental health crisis, but believes the launch of the 988 number is a step in the right direction.

"It's not going to cure the problem overnight," Tabb acknowledged. "It's going to help. The people here that are in the mental health and crisis management field; it can be tough. It can be tough to do that work. And so, when you can have something really positive and large, and visible to people, it gets them really excited."