Colorado’s 2-1-1 hotline would ramp up mental health, substance use referrals under proposed law

The system currently serves callers with referrals to resources such as legal help, prescription assistance and housing

By: - April 27, 2021 5:10 am

A clinical doctor reviews test results with a patient at the hospital. (Tom Werner/Getty Images)

By dialing 2-1-1, Coloradans can get connected with food assistance, emergency shelter services, COVID-19 testing sites and more. Now, some state legislators want call takers to provide people with more help for mental health- and substance use-related needs.

Senate Bill 21-239, sponsored by Democratic Sens. Chris Kolker of Centennial and Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada, would require 2-1-1 Colorado to provide people with referrals to behavioral health services, such as community mental health centers that can provide affordable therapy. In order to ensure the staff taking calls from people who may have mental illnesses or substance use disorders receive specialized training, the bill would require the state’s Department of Human Services to contract with the collaborative of organizations that hosts the 2-1-1 call centers.

The Office of Behavioral Health within DHS would also work with the 2-1-1 Collaborative to market the hotline to traditionally underserved communities.

DHS would receive nearly $1 million in each of the next two budget years to implement the bill’s requirements. Most of that money would cover grants to the collaborative for specially trained staff members to answer phone calls. The department would be required to report the effects of the legislation on referrals to behavioral health resources.

Another provision of the legislation would direct call-takers to start providing referrals to resources for unemployed people in Colorado, and work with the state’s Department of Labor and Employment on marketing the hotline through emails and texts. The department would need to update its website with the 2-1-1 phone number and links to the 2-1-1 Collaborative’s online database of resources.

When people need help, they “don’t always know where to start or who to call, and so that’s the value of 2-1-1,” Stephanie Sanchez, statewide director of 2-1-1 Colorado, said in an interview.

“We know people don’t necessarily have just one need, right, and we know even today, people are calling into 2-1-1, and of course, they’re asking about rent,” she said, giving an example of an urgent need. “But in talking with that client, we hear the unspoken needs. And that unspoken need is their anxiety, their stress.”

A call taker can say, “‘This is what I hear going on with you. Can we also help in this area?’ or ‘Have you thought about this?'” Sanchez continued. “Maybe (the client) didn’t realize they could call 2-1-1 for that particular need.”

Sanchez said SB-239 places more emphasis on behavioral health resources and public resources for unemployed people, strengthening the hotline’s ability to help people in those areas.

On Monday, the Senate Health and Human Services Committee unanimously approved SB-239, referring it to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Numbers to know

Staff at 2-1-1 Colorado answer calls Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. They can provide referrals to a variety of resources — including legal help, prescription assistance, school supplies, housing and clothing — in communities across the state. Coloradans in need can also text their zip code to 898-211 or visit 211Colorado.org.

While Coloradans seeking help can already call 2-1-1 and be connected with a representative from Mile High United Way, another three-digit number — 9-8-8 — will be important to know in 2022. The Federal Communications Commission expects anyone in the country will be able to dial 9-8-8 to be connected with the National Suicide Prevention Hotline by July 16, 2022.

Finally, Colorado Crisis Services operates a phone line, text line and chat service for people with mental health or substance use needs. By dialing 1-844-493-8255 or texting “TALK” to 38255, Coloradans in crisis can be connected with a trained professional 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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Faith Miller
Faith Miller

Reporter Faith Miller covers the Colorado Legislature, immigration and other stories for Colorado Newsline.

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