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Wisconsin, nation gear up for 988 mental health crisis hotline

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Lorre with Lily's artwork (copy)

Lorre Kolb, of Madison, displays paintings by her late daughter Lily, who died from an overdose of methamphetamine and fentanyl in 2021. On July 16, people with mental health or substance abuse crises can call the new national hotline number 988.

In less than two months, a yearslong effort to make it easier for people with mental health or substance abuse crises to get help will culminate in an easy-to-remember hotline number: 988.

On July 16, the 10-digit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline will relaunch as 988, though the existing number — (800) 273-8255 — will remain in effect. Instead of calling 911, which may connect people with law enforcement, dialing or texting 988 — or using 988 as a chat code — will link those in crisis with people trained to help them.

While call centers in Wisconsin and around the country are gearing up for the change, a shortage of staff and logistical challenges may result in a gradual transition while the move helps to unify a patchwork of services, a federal official said Tuesday.

“System change of this magnitude will not happen overnight,” John Palmieri, acting director of 988 at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, said during a media call. “988 has also galvanized a field which has struggled in the past with fragmentation and gaps.”

Journey Mental Health Center in Madison also currently fields Lifeline calls. Its local crisis line is (608) 280-2600.

John Draper, executive director of Vibrant Emotional Health, said the 200 call centers involved with Lifeline nationally expect an increase in calls and need more workers. Vibrant has been administering the program for nearly 17 years.

“It’s a new number, but we’re building on an existing service,” Draper said. “Our centers are looking for people who are willing to step up and do this work.”

Taun Hall said she hopes 988 “will give innocent people a chance to live.”

Hall is the mother of Miles Hall, 23, who was shot and killed by police in 2019 in Walnut Creek, California, during a domestic incident.

Hall’s grandmother called 911 to say he had threatened her. Hall’s mother also called police saying he threatened her and telling them he had a mental illness, according to media reports.

“Our family needed another number to call,” Taun Hall said Tuesday, “that was staffed with mental health professionals.”

Higher education reporter Kelly Meyerhofer shares her favorite stories of 2021

After a bruising year brimming with horrific headlines, the first story I wrote in 2021 was filled with optimism for the year ahead: UW-Madison received its first COVID-19 vaccines.

The pandemic continued to be a throughline for me (and most every reporter on the planet) this year. I chronicled COVID-19's toll on students' mental health, wrote about the anxiety faculty had in returning to face-to-face classes amid the surging delta variant and reported on the varying vaccination strategies across schools. 

One of my favorite stories was following a set of quadruplets through their first semester of college. Each of them attended a different institution yet they all started school from their childhood home.

In another feature story, I wrote about a UW-Madison nursing student overcoming almost insurmountable odds to earn her bachelor's degree this spring.

One of my more simple story ideas was talking to six Madisonians — a nurse, firefighter, professor, pastor, funeral director and public health employee — on the one-year anniversary of the pandemic about how COVID-19 had disrupted their lives. I'm grateful to each of them for sharing their personal stories with readers.

A more complex story involved reviewing thousands of pages of emails and records to reconstruct the first two weeks of September 2020 at UW-Madison, a time when COVID-19 cases exploded and employees scrambled to respond. 

More than one hundred of my 170-some stories so far this year touched on COVID-19 in some way or another. Here's hoping for fewer virus-related stories in 2022! And thanks to State Journal subscribers for supporting my work as one of Wisconsin's few higher education reporters.

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A third of UW-Madison’s COVID-19 cases for the entire school year came in the four weeks after students started moving into the dorms.

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The torrent of disruption to daily life over the past year has been inescapable.

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The nursing student learned about end-of-life care in lectures. She had to put that knowledge to the test last year. 

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Engineering professor Akbar Sayeed left behind a "career-long string of victims," according to a recently released report. 

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COVID-19 complicated the transition for all freshmen last year, but especially for students who started their college careers from home. For one family, those complications were multiplied by four.

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