RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — On July 16, Virginia is officially launching its 988 number, a mental health crisis line that connects callers to counselors and mental health services.

This national hotline will connect people who call to resources through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. According to Staci Young, the Region 5 Crisis Call Center Program administrator, the 988 dispatchers can direct the caller to local resources based on their area code.

Young said Virginia is only one out of four states that implemented a tax to fund this program beginning last year. She said Virginia added some of its own initiatives to the national program.

“When someone calls 988 and they need that mobile support or they need that 23-hour observation center, we can access those services readily across the board,” Young said.

She said the state has been working on these Virginia-exclusive programs so that they can be released with the 988 number, adding that while the state is hiring more people for all of these programs, their mobile teams include Virginia’s community behavioral health systems and private providers.

She said it’s crucial that the people who call 988 have rapid access to mental health services. This hotline also limits the amount of mental health emergency calls that 911 gets, as those dispatchers don’t have access to immediate mental health assistance.

“It’s going to break down a lot of stigma around being able to say ‘Hey, I’m someone who has a mental health concern or maybe even a mental health diagnosis and I need help right away,'” Young said.

She said people who call the line will be provided long-term resources and mental health care locally.

“It’s going to be something people can easily remember to call,” Young said. “And, that’s significant because when you’re in a crisis, it’s hard to remember a 10-digit phone number.”

Virginia Senator Jeremy McPike, who co-sponsored the 988 legislation, said this number allows people struggling to get access to help as early as possible.

“The data indicates that many 911 calls can actually be diverted to mental health,” McPike said. “So, it’s the hope that the 988 will provide that first opportunity and access for those who are experiencing a crisis or need help early so it doesn’t get to a crisis point.”

Laura Clark, the PRS CrisisLink senior director, said the 988 system is expected to answer 95% of all callers with Virginia area codes within 20 seconds. 911 dispatchers can also transfer callers to 988.

McPike said Virginia still has a lack of mental health professionals that can assist those struggling with their mental health and that must be addressed in the future in order to support Virginians.

“It’s going to take years to develop additional workforce and training necessary to truly respond and have an adequate mental health system in Virginia,” McPike said.