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A sign, visible to drivers on West 84th Avenue in Westminster, points to the 24/7 Walk-in Crisis Center among the other services offered at the Centura Health Complex. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

A new three-digit number for mental health emergencies will go live in Colorado and the rest of the nation Saturday, connecting people to crisis counselors any time of day or night. 

The new number, 988, is the mental health version of 911. 

In Colorado, calls to 988 will get routed to the call center for the state’s network of walk-in crisis centers, overnight stabilization facilities and mobile crisis units. But this works only when the caller has a Colorado area code, meaning that thousands of people living in Colorado who have area codes from other states will not reach Colorado Crisis Services.

Colorado residents using cell phones with Illinois or Texas area codes would get routed to services in those states instead, for example.

It’s a problem that state and federal officials are still working to fix. 

The state’s new Behavioral Health Administration, which oversees the crisis services network, “recognizes that many people in Colorado do not have a phone number with a Colorado area code” and suggested that people without an in-state area code instead dial Colorado’s crisis line, 1-844-493-8255. Another option is to text TALK to 38255. 

“We want to ensure a safe, immediate connection to local resources and support,” the administration said in an email. “While 988 is an innovative service that should positively impact caller experiences across the country, the full vision of a transformed crisis care system with 988 will not be built overnight. Transformation of this scale will take time.”

Colorado officials are currently in talks with the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Federal Communications Commission to figure out how to fix the issue, which is also a problem in other states that are trying to rout 988 calls to their own crisis service centers.

If a person is routed to a state where they don’t live, a counselor in that state is likely to ask the caller to hang up and instead dial services in their area. If it’s an emergency, the counselor can make the connections and send help. 

The new number, approved by Congress in 2020, is for people who are having thoughts of suicide, are in emotional distress, or who are in a substance abuse crisis. The hotline, called the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, also has a chat option, available online

Colorado has applied for $2.4 million in federal coronavirus relief aid to help handle the expected influx of mental health calls with the launching of 988. In addition, the state legislature passed a law last year allowing a surcharge on phone bills to fund the crisis hotline, including for public messaging about the new number and response to crisis calls. The surcharge was set to take effect Jan. 1 and is expected to generate $12 million next year.

The law gave state behavioral health officials approval to hire three new employees to oversee the program, collect and report data, and coordinate public messaging about 988. 

Colorado Crisis Line: A statewide hotline. 1-844-493-8255, or text TALK to 38255.