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988 crisis line calls don't always route directly to support in Maine

Since the rollout of the 988 number, people calling from cellphones with out-of-state numbers do not get the Maine Crisis Line. Officials are working to fix that.

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — With every call to the Maine Crisis Line comes the chance to literally change someone's life. 

"We do save lives. I know we do," Tracy Mallwitz said. 

Mallwitz runs the program for The Opportunity Alliance, Cumberland County's Community Action Agency.

The crisis line has been around for more than 50 years. It fields as many as 10,000 calls per month, 24 hours per day, seven days per week.

Every time an operator picks up the phone in their South Portland call center, Mallwitz said her team members are meeting someone at their worst. 

"I see it, I hear it on a regular basis, scary situations," she said. "There's no judgment. There's no one on the other side shaming you."

In July 2022, Maine soft-launched the new nationwide 988 suicide and crisis hotline to make it easier for people to get the mental health support they need. Right now, the line depends solely on a 10-digit number. 

According to Mallwitz, the long-term goal is not just to have a simpler number for people to call and text, but to strengthen support systems to ensure trained mental health professionals are responding to mental health calls. 

"988 will help people in those mental health situations and 911 will be able to deal with crises at hand," she said. 

But there are still some challenges with the rollout technically speaking, including that callers with out-of-state cellphone number are not directly sent to the Maine Crisis Line. They instead go to the crisis line in the state of your number or to a centralized hub.

"You won't get that direct connection back to the Maine Crisis Line, like someone who has a 207 area code," Sarah Squirrell, acting director of the Office of Behavioral Health at Maine Department of Health and Human Services, told NEWS CENTER Maine.

Squirrell noted that calls can still be "triaged" and transferred to the Maine Crisis Line.

According to DHHS, national research found the problem impacts fewer than 10 percent of people in need of services. 

"We're confident that our federal partners will continue to work on a fix for this, and in the meantime, we'll continue to work on ensuring that those calls are transferred in a timely way," Squirrell said.

At the Maine Crisis Line, another concern is having enough staff to meet the growing demand. Right now, there are several openings. 

Last year, the state allocated $450,000 for the implementation of 988, including funding for six more callers.

"When you have three to four to 500 calls coming in [during] a day, and you have a staff of five working those shifts, and call after call after call where people are in crisis and in need, I think people don't understand the impact that can have on an individual person," Mallwitz said.

The positive impact on others though is what Mallwitz said keeps her and her team going. She said they will keep answering the phones and saving lives. 

If you or someone you love needs help, you can call or text the Maine Crisis Line 24/7 at 988 or 1-988-568-1112.

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