988 lifeline: Wisconsin call center sees volume increase

The federal government passed legislation last July that created a new three-digit number for mental health services – 988 is the new suicide and crisis lifeline.

Wisconsin Lifeline is the name of the new call center where all calls made in Wisconsin to 988 are answered. The center is located in the Family Services of Northeast Wisconsin building in Green Bay.

Call counselors staff the center 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year. Shelley Missal, the program manager of Wisconsin Lifeline, said call volume has increased since 988 rolled out. In 2021, the call center answered 1,100 calls a month. After 988 federal legislation passed in July, the call volume increased to 4,500 per month. In January 2023, the call center took 5,000 calls.

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"I think the stigma is starting to fall away as far as asking for help and reaching out for help," Missal said.

While 988 is a suicide hotline, Missal said that is not always the main reason people are picking up the phone.

988 Wisconsin Lifeline sees increase in call volume

"Seventy to 75% of our calls are the other things in people’s lives – relationship issues, job issues, financial issues. Whatever might be happening and people just want somebody to talk to," Missal said.

A crisis looks different for everyone. It could be anxiety over a future event or grieving the loss of a loved one. Caroline Crehan Neuman, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services' crisis services coordinator, said we all experience things like this because we are human.

"Crisis, mental health crisis, substance use crisis are not for people over there – it’s all of us," Neuman said.

Wisconsin Lifeline is a non-profit organization but gets funding from DHS. After 988 legislation passed at the federal level, the decision-making moved to the state level.

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"The Wisconsin government is sort of helping to support 988, every other state and territory in the U.S. it’s the same way," Neuman said.

Caller information is still confidential.

"Let’s say you’re someone who lives in Kenosha and you call 988, you text 988, you chat the 988 service – there is no way for us, a government agency as a part of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, is going to know John Doe in Kenosha called 988 and this is what we’re going to do about it. So we’re far removed," Neuman said.

As a national program, there are protocols and policies in place for 988 that Wisconsin has to follow. If a caller isn’t able to de-escalate, Neuman said call counselors can make clinical judgement if a caller is in "imminent risk" of taking their own life or someone else’s. This is when a call counselor can ask if it’s OK to contact authorities.

988 Wisconsin Lifeline call center in Green Bay

"I want people to know that we do have a relationship with law enforcement," Neuman said.

This is not the majority of calls. Out of 5,000 calls a month, Neuman said about 20 people are in "imminent risk" or in need of "imminent rescue."

Most people who call simply want a human connection. Missal said it’s about prevention and having an opportunity to help people before a crisis escalates into something more imminent.

"We just want to validate what people are going through and let them know that they're not in it alone, and they can reach out to someone," Missal said.

People can call, chat or text 988 any time, day or night. Missal encourages people to just reach out and experience it for themselves. Since the call center covers all 72 counties, Missal said call counselors can connect people with local resources like ongoing therapy options or a county crisis service.