988: A Lifeline for Mental Health

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Discover the major upgrade to South Carolina’s emotional crisis helpline, now featuring the easy-to-remember 988 number, on this episode of the Simple Civics. We speak with Jennifer Piver, Executive Director of Mental Health America of Greenville County, about the importance of this change and the benefit for those seeking support. Jennifer describes the origins of the new number, the funding needs faced by the helpline, such as funding and local resources, and how listeners can get involved in this life-saving initiative. Tune in to learn how this vital service offers hope for individuals struggling with mental health challenges, and how the upgraded helpline is poised to make a difference.


Mental Health America of Greenville County

Jennifer Piver Bio


Katy Smith: It is no secret that mental health challenges and the pursuit of services across the country is on the rise. This is both because in a wonderful way, people recognize that they can get help for mental health challenges and they don’t feel the same stigma they may have in the past. But it also shows what challenging times we’re in that people need help.

Thankfully, 988 is a new service here. I’m here today to talk with Jennifer Piver, Executive Director of Mental Health America of Greenville County, which is taking the lead on 988 in our area, to talk about what the service provides and what 988 needs from our state to help make sure it can meet all of the needs of folks in South Carolina.

Jennifer, thanks so much for joining us to talk about 988 and the work of Mental Health America.

Jennifer Piver: Thank you for having me.

Katy Smith: Yeah, can you begin by telling us what is 988 and how did it come to be?

Jennifer Piver: So 988 is an easy to remember, three digit phone number for a long 10 digit phone number that the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has had since 2005. And they shortened it up to make it easy to remember, similar to 911, but for emotional health crisis.

Katy Smith: That’s outstanding. And so knowing that that old number had been there for a while and 988 is so easy, how.. What was the process of that being established?

Jennifer Piver: Well, it took a lot of research nationally, and then in 2020 it was passed into law that it would go live, that those three digits would go live July 16th, 2022. And that the phone companies had to get everything directed to that. Then it was handed to the states to figure out how to fund it and to work through the logistics.

But it’s important for people to know that it’s the same service that we’ve always provided, but now more people can know about it and access it when they need it.

Katy Smith: Yeah. Can you talk about your history in providing those services for many years now?

Jennifer Piver: Well, we’re a nonprofit. We’ve been here since the fifties, and, uh, we started providing hotline services in 1990 through our crisis line and evolved into our teen line and then chat and text. And we got certified in 2005 and became part of the network in 2007. So we’ve taken, almost half a million calls, chats, and texts by now.

Katy Smith: Oh my goodness. So you’re expert at doing this. You’ve been doing this. But now with this short, easy to remember number that is being well promoted, you’ll get a lot more calls. You are getting a lot more calls, which is great. That’s what we want. We, because people are suffering and we want them to get help. When someone calls 988, what can they expect?

Jennifer Piver: Well, the first thing they expect is they hear a recording and it offers people three options. If you are a veteran, you can press one. If you speak Spanish, press two. If you’re LGBTQ, you can press three. And that’ll route you to very specific centers who have just more training in those areas and more resources.

And then if you do nothing, it will route you to the nearest call center based on your area code. So not where your feet are, but the nation is working on that with the FCC because we wanna make sure that people get the resources where they’re needed. But for right now, it’s based on your area code. So if you grew up in South Carolina and have an 864 or South Carolina area code, you’ll currently come to us and a second center will be coming out soon in Charleston.

Katy Smith: So when I get connected, who am I talking to and what can I expect from the conversation?

Jennifer Piver: So we have folks from all different backgrounds. We have staff and we have volunteers. So what we prioritize is the training and how to teach people to support someone with compassion during a crisis. So you’re not talking to a licensed therapist. We refer to them all day long, but we’re really there to help give people a safe place to talk, a place without judgment, with compassion, and really the collaboration empowerment for you to make the choices and decisions for yourself.

We all have enough people telling us what to do, but that’s just not the role we take. But we also have the community resources to help you further along your recovery or address the crisis that you’re having. And it’s also for people who’ve are concerned about a loved one as well.

Katy Smith: I mean, it seems purely logical that if I call 911, I might have an array of emergencies, and the person who answers the phone isn’t the person who can address every single one, but they can listen to me and with training and intelligence direct me or send the right resource to me. So it’s really the same thing.

Jennifer Piver: Exactly, and that’s why it’s so important for the calls to be answered in state because we have a great relationship with the Department of Mental Health and their mobile crisis or their crisis stabilization units. If we’re talking to someone from Texas, we don’t know about those things there, so it’s really important to get ’em answered in state, and we just have great collaborations like with the 911 folks who can really help us when we need them.

Katy Smith: So now that 988 is up and running, you’re seeing a dramatic increase nationally in calls as they come into you here in South Carolina. You’re trained and ready to receive them, but have you had demand that exceeds your capacity? And when that happens, what do you all do?

Jennifer Piver: We have, we have seen that increase in that demand. But what’s important to know is that if we’re at our capacity, what happens is it rolls to a national backup center and the folks are trained similar to us.

There’s standards and they’re there again to be a compassionate ear to deescalate the situation, but they struggle with the resources. We all do the best we can to make it happen. But that’s what happens is that there’s a backup system built in to the national network. But again, it goes back to having the local resources.

Katy Smith: It’s great that there are other compassionate, kind, trained people elsewhere in the country to handle them, but I think we would really prefer that to be more local. So in what percentage of cases does that happen?

Jennifer Piver: 61% of the phone calls that have come in were answered in state by us but only 12% of the texts and 11% of the chats. So we have a lot of work to do.

Katy Smith: What would make the difference? What’s the obstacle then to getting to those calls?

Jennifer Piver: It’s simply funding. We have the most amazing state-of-the-art facility here in Greenville. We also have a backup location for us out in Greer. We have 53 work stations and the ability to have remote workers. So it’s really about paying the staff and the salaries and those things and the training to build that infrastructure of staffing.

The rest we’ve got covered.

Katy Smith: And the funding comes from where?

Jennifer Piver: So right now we’re living off of grants and we’ve been able to do amazing with those grants and those partnerships, but those are one-time dollars, you know, and we really need to look first at that sustainable funding. When the bill was passed, it offered the option that the states could add a fee to everyone’s phone bill, and we’re not there yet.

So right now we’re talking to the House and the Senate about adding $3.9 million for Mental Health America of Greenville County for this year’s budget. And really staff up because this year was a soft launch and there wasn’t much marketing done. That changes next year.

Katy Smith: Yeah, which is great. We want people to know, but we also wanna be able to help them locally. So the law was passed, 988 is here. It was received by the state with great enthusiasm. What has the state done to support 988 thus far?

Jennifer Piver: Well, one of the most exciting things was to put it on the student IDs. So seventh grade and up. If the schools had an ID, it’s on there. So the kids know about it. The legislator put aside $1.3 million for a second call center in Charleston. The Department of Education has supported us as well, and the Department of Mental Health has included us in several federal grants that, you know, total well over a million dollars, and we just need that reoccurring funding to keep going.

Katy Smith: It does strike me. I mean, two things strike me. One is none of us would expect 911 to be scrapped together random grants to fund it. It’s like running water. We wanna turn on the tap and it’s there because it’s important. And so we would want the same to happen for 988. And the second thing that strikes me is that while I’m glad there’s the opportunity for calls to roll over to other states to help with our needs, you know, there’s probably a little of the same frustration that happens when you need your printer fixed and your call gets routed to someone in Asia.

I’m so glad they are there to help and are trained, but sometimes there are language barriers, you know, or just conventions of speaking that just make the process take longer. When you’re in a mental health crisis, having no communication barriers and someone who knows your local resources, I think would be so important.

Jennifer Piver: Time is everything, especially if someone’s having thoughts of suicide or already did something to end their life. I mean, time matters. And making sure those right connections, whether it’s mobile crisis or 911, it saves lives.

Katy Smith: Well, what can listeners do to connect with 988 and be supportive of the work?

Jennifer Piver: Well contact your legislator to help us get that $3.9 million for Mental Health America of Greenville County, but really also we need volunteers and help spread the word about 988. One thing that we always talk about it is 988 isn’t just for individuals who are suicidal, but it’s for any type of distress.

We hope that this is a prevention tool, so things don’t get that bad. So if you are struggling or if you know of a friend who’s going through something, please share that because at the end of the day, 988 is all about hope and 988 is that new number that can give that.

Katy Smith: That’s so wonderful and I appreciate you saying that. If a friend or family member is struggling, can I call with a concern about a friend or family member to get guidance?

Jennifer Piver: Absolutely, we can help navigate some of the systems, like sharing counseling services or mobile crisis or just different supports that we have. And it’s hard watching someone that you love struggle, and having someone also to talk through that with can be really helpful for folks.

Katy Smith: That’s wonderful. Jennifer, thank you so much for your leadership and all that Mental Health America does. Really, we’re excited to get the word out about the service and the opportunity for people to raise their voice for more funding for it.

Jennifer Piver: Thank you so much for your time.

Catherine Puckett: Simple Civics: Greenville County is a project of Greater Good Greenville. Greater Good Greenville was catalyzed by the merger of the Nonprofit Alliance and the Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy. You can learn more on our website at greatergoodgreenville.org. This is a production of the Greenville Podcast Company.

Image via SAMHSA.

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