COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Ohio’s new 988 number for those experiencing mental health or addiction crises is up and running.

Launched on Saturday, Ohioans dealing with a mental health or substance abuse emergency can now dial or text 988 to get connected with a licensed counselor — a move aimed at expanding access to care while eliminating the hassle of punching in, and remembering, the 10-digit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number.

“This is just going to be eventually as ubiquitous as 911,” said Stacey Frohnapfel-Hasson, bureau chief of the Office of Prevention at the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (ODMHAS).

The statewide transition to 988 comes about a month after the Ohio House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill to align the Buckeye State with a federal mandate requiring phone service providers to direct 988 calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by July 16.

While $20 million in federal dollars and additional state funds are expected to cover the program’s costs until June 2023, the switch to 988 is a “work in progress” that the ODMHAS and its partners continue to build upon, according to Ohio Suicide Prevention Foundation Executive Director Tony Coder.

“911 took 10, 15 years to achieve what it needed to be where it’s at even today,” Coder said. “This will be part of a larger crisis continuum.”

The move to a three-digit number is not only designed to save time for Ohioans in crisis but also to prevent law enforcement from deploying time and resources to calls that could be more effectively handled by licensed counselors, Frohnapfel-Hasson said.

Ohio calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – which operates 19 call centers throughout the state – jumped from about 72,000 in 2020 to about 90,000 in 2021, according to Coder.

Of those callers, about 80% have crises that can be handled, at least temporarily, over the phone, meaning emergency response services or law enforcement aren’t called to respond, Coder said.

“It can be that opportunity to just let someone work out an issue they’re having or get them a little bit of hope or get them connected, instead of a police officer showing up at your door or ending up in the emergency office,” Coder said.

For crises that cannot be resolved over the phone, 988 counselors are trained to connect the caller with a mobile response team, which could include a behavioral health or first responder team — or both — to assist the caller.

Ohioans experiencing suicidal ideation or other mental health crises aren’t the only ones who can connect with a counselor through 988, according to Frohnapfel-Hasson. The lifeline can also be used for those dealing with substance abuse emergencies.

Mansfield attorney and suicide loss survivor Jeffrey Heck said while he is “so incredibly excited” about the state opening a new window for Ohioans to access mental health care, he is worried that 988 is not ready for “prime time.”

Heck, who lost his “tough, amazing” 33-year-old daughter Danielle to suicide in 2019, said he fears the “cart’s before the horse” in transitioning to 988, as future funding sources are ambiguous and the capacity for crisis call centers to handle an influx in callers is unclear.

“If you’re in a desperate situation, what could be worse — you’re feeling hopeless and alone and the people they tell you to call won’t pick up,” he said.

Within days of losing his daughter, Heck said he and his wife Donna established 33 Forever, a suicide prevention nonprofit that seeks to raise awareness of and support those dealing with mental illness.

Also a board member of the Ohio Suicide Prevention Foundation, Heck suggested one solution to collecting more dollars to support the 988 program’s infrastructure: A monthly 50-cent tax on Ohioans’ phone bills, or $6 annually, which is already in place for the state’s 911 system.

“For some reason, that seems to be a nonstarter with many in politics right now,” he said.

While the bill authorizing the transition to 988 passed in the Ohio House, it remains stalled in the Senate. Frohnapfel-Hasson said her department is moving full-steam ahead with launching 988 but is hopeful the Senate will approve the bill to establish a trust fund for future program funding.

“Even though it’s not a finished product, this is a product that’s going to work, be really helpful and really change Ohio and the landscape of how we serve,” Coder said.

Ohioans should call 911 for mental health and addiction emergencies, like active suicide threats or apparent drug overdoses. For a mental health and addiction crisis, call 988, according to the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.