Santa Clara County unveils 988 call center, promises faster link to mental health services

Northern California's first county-run center to handle calls from the new national "988," a number for anyone experiencing mental health distress, is now up and running.

On Tuesday, Santa Clara County unveiled its call center, which is also directly tied to a wide range of other emergency county services.

In a mental health emergency, every second can count. With the new consolidated 988 center, the goal from the time the phone rings, to the time people are connected to services, is about to be vastly reduced.

Santa Clara County is only one of two counties in California which run its own 988 call center. There are 12 in all statewide, with 10 run by non-profit or other groups. Kern County also runs its own 988 call center.

When you dial 988 anywhere in Santa Clara County, you are not reaching a call center in a distant city with people unfamiliar with local resources. It is staffed 24/7 with trained local professionals to get you to the help you need, and fast.

"If you are in a crisis, you want to talk to somebody, and you want to talk to somebody now," said Joe Tansek with Santa Clara County Behavioral Health, which provides the suicide and crisis prevention staffing to the call center.

"The 988 group is going to not only be providing suicide prevention and crisis hotline services, but they are also connecting to our mobile crisis response team they are going to be connecting to our continuum of community response agencies," Tansek said. 

Last year, the county’s crisis response number received more than 50,000 calls. With the simplicity of 988, the call volume is expected to increase.

If somebody calls 988 and is not having a mental health crisis, but is looking for local substance abuse resources, the 988 responder can immediately hand off that call to another expert in the same room. It is hoped the seamless operation between areas of expertise gets the help where it is needed, and when it is needed.

"The national standard is 6 rings or 30 seconds," said Bruce Copley. Copley, who oversees the 988 call center, is the Director of Access and Unplanned Services for Santa Clara County Behavioral Health.

There are 10 full-time employees and 75 trained volunteers that will help staff the 988 system. Call takers speak multiple languages and can tie into a translation service for others.

Also housed here is what is called a "navigation center" to help callers locate and connect with the full range of county services.

"That’s a county initiative to again provide the community — the whole community — information around community resources or problems they are having getting community resources," Copley said.

In some cases, calls to 988 can be directly transferred to county clinics where people can make appointments to be screened. While the county’s 988 system is now fully operational, all of the players have yet to move into this same room, but they will do so over the next few weeks.