The new nationwide 988 mental health helpline goes live  Saturday (July 16th) as some questions remain about the sustainability of the plant.

The idea is to give you an easy number to remember when you need immediate mental health support from a trained counselor or local crisis intervention services. Mental health advocates and law enforcement leaders have pushed for the number.

Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson says it can take people directly to the source of help without having to go through law enforcement. “It helps divert a significant portion of the people that otherwise might end up in the criminal justice system for no other reason than the fact that they are mentally ill,” Thompson says.

But rolling out the service is proving to be complicated. The federal legislation left 988 up to states to implement with federal funding. But it also allows states to impose a new tax on phone lines to fund call centers and even crisis services. Many states, including Iowa, use this kind of tax to help fund 911 services, but Iowa has not introduced any legislation to fund 988.

Marissa Eyanson with the Iowa Department of Human Services says the state is relying on federal funding to see what real-time demand for it will look like after it launches. “We’re accounting for what we know today to be additional funding available from the federal level. But we’re also looking to detect what that means going forward. Because there’s an ongoing conversation at the federal level for how the effort will be supported. It is a nationwide effort, and it’s important,” Eyanson.

Eyanson says it’s unlikely that DHS will have enough data available to review in time to come up with a legislative plan by the next session. Organizations contracted by the state to set up the statewide 988 call centers have concerns about this — including CommUnity CEO Sarah Nelson in Iowa City.

“We’re building a massive infrastructure to do this and without knowing if there’s sustainable funding moving forward,” Nelson says. Emily Blomme is CEO of Foundation 2 Crisis Services in Cedar Rapids. She says it’s been challenging to recruit the extra crisis counselors they need with the funding she has. “It’s really hard to say, Hi, you need to have a bachelor’s degree and two years of experience, and I’m going to pay you 17 dollars an hour,” according to Bloome.

Both organizations currently run call centers for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. But Blomme says estimates provided by the national lifeline projects calls to jump significantly under 988. And so far she’s hired less than half the additional staff she would like to have in place by the launch date. Eyanson of DHS says the agency has worked with Vibrant to review that estimate and provide its two contractors with enough funding for the first two years.

“What we’ve told them is that we think we’re sufficiently funded to start, but if their experience tells us otherwise, we will shift and that is a, that’s a promise that we’ll make real,” Eyanson says. If you need help you can 988 starting tomorrow.

(By Natalie Krebs, Iowa Public Radio)