PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra made a stop in Portland Thursday as part of a visit to the Pacific Northwest to address what Biden administration officials called solutions to “the nation’s mental health crisis.”

The secretary toured a non-profit crisis call center in South Portland and Portland Community College’s lab for medical diagnostic imaging before heading north to Washington. Becerra’s trip to the region is, in part, to promote the billions in federal funding included in the American Rescue Plan for mental health and addiction resources.

The crisis call center, Lines for Life, hosts a 24-7 hotline for people struggling with addiction, suicidal thoughts and other mental health issues.

Officials said it will play a key role in transitioning the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to its new three-digit form, which was designed to reduce the strain on hospitals’ emergency departments, increase free access to counselors and make calling for help during a mental health crisis more like calling 911. On July 16, the national line’s 800-273-8255 number will be replaced with a shorter dialing code, 988.

Lines for Life’s youth service also recently received federal funding, and Becerra met with its teenage volunteers who answer calls from other teens in crisis. Gov. Kate Brown, along with Oregon’s U.S. congressmen, Reps. Earl Blumenauer (OR-3) and Kurt Schrader (OR-5), joined Becerra at the event to discuss the struggles children and teens have endured during the pandemic.

“There’s a culture, especially in high school, of dealing with difficult issues by themselves and not wanting to ask for help and that being a weakness in yourself when that’s not the case,” said Maeve, one of the call takers and team leads at Lines for Life.

Last year, more than 21,000 teenagers across the country called the line seeking help. What the teenagers may lack in a college-level education, they make up for in shared experience.

“That creates more trust than you can have with an adult and it’s really hard to trust people sometimes when you’re going through depression,” said Kate, another call taker.

The teenage call takers play a crucial role in the mental and behavioral health landscape right now that is hurting for counselors and psychiatrists.

Maeve told Becerra, that those types of positions are extremely helpful in schools “, especially for students who are lower-income and don’t have parents who are supportive of mental health.”

However, the Oregon School Counselors Association said during the round table, that Oregon needs 744 more school counselors across the state to ensure that children have a place in their school to go to for help.

“We are trying to stop the hemorrhaging of professionals leaving because they’re exhausted, they’re burnt out, they don’t see a path forward,” Becerra said. “We recently put out $100 million for providers who are trying to keep their workforce in place.”

Wages and training are other issues facing the workforce for mental and behavioral health. Becerra also toured Portland Community College to get an idea of the talent pipeline, but says the industry will continue to struggle if wages are similar to that of service industries.

“It speaks to our values that we aren’t putting the money to put those people in place to save that life,” Becerra said.

Julie Scholz with the American Academy of Pediatrics the system of screening and referring at-risk teens is important but could be assisted by primary care physicians to streamline the process. She also added working directly with parents and schools is also effective, especially fully staffing school mental health programs because of how much time students spend there.

Becerra told attendees “we are losing thousands of children each year because we can’t reach them” and said Lines for Life is one of the organizations that can help youth in peril before it’s too late.

KOIN 6 Reporter Brandon Thompson contributed to this article.

If you or someone you know is going through a mental health crisis,
Lines for Life is available around-the-clock at 800.273.8255.
The Lines for Life Youth Line is 877.968.8491.