‘I’ve been there, too.’ How Oklahoma 988 director brings experience to job, helping others

January 17, 2023

When Tony Stelter stepped into his role overseeing the Oklahoma City call center for the statewide 988 mental health line, he brought years of experience working in the state’s mental health system.

He also brings the experience of someone who’s been there before — who knows what it’s like to struggle with mental illness and substance abuse, and to find hope in recovery.

From a young age, Stelter dealt with severe depression and anxiety and eventually turned to substance use to cope. At one point, he attempted to overdose.

Today, he uses his experience and recovery to keep Oklahomans who call 988 top of mind.

“I’ve been there, too,” Stelter said. “I understand how important it is what we’re doing, how big of an impact it makes on the people that are calling in.”

Since 988 launched in Oklahoma this summer, the call center has answered more than 15,000 calls and dispatched hundreds of mobile teams to people in crisis. It operates with a “no wrong door” approach — anyone in need of mental health support, whether they’re in crisis or calling for a loved one, can get connected to resources by dialing or texting the three-digit code.

The Oklahoma State Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services selected Solari Crisis and Human Services to operate the call center, which has been running crisis call lines in Arizona for years.

988 arrived last summer at a critical time: Recent statistics showed about 4% of adults in Oklahoma had serious thoughts of suicide, and one in 10 students attempted suicide in the last year.

In Oklahoma, calls are answered by Oklahomans.

“They’re going to talk to somebody that’s glad they called, somebody that’s trained,” Stelter said. “They’re going to have somebody that’s empathetic, cares about them, and that tries to get them to that next step to help give them the resources they need.”

In his role, Stelter practices servant-leadership, answering calls to the center when he can or when he needs to fill in for a team member. It keeps him grounded to the center’s purpose — Solari’s mission is simply “inspiring hope” — and keeps him connected with what his team deals with daily.

“It’s not always comfortable being on those conversations with folks, but our staff are willing to do that and be there with those people when they need them most,” he said. “It’s an honor to be a part of it.”

What to know about the 988 hotline

988, which launched in Oklahoma in July 2022, fits into the state’s comprehensive crisis response system as an entry point for people in need.

According to recent data, about 92% of calls to 988 in Oklahoma were resolved over the phone, so they didn’t require an in-person response.

Mental health professionals on the line can dispatch a mobile crisis team if necessary. They’re not law enforcement, they cover all 77 counties and their goal is to reach the person in need within an hour, Stelter said.

How to get help

988 is available 24/7 by call or text.

When you call, you’ll be asked for your name and date of birth, but you can stay anonymous if you choose to. Then, the person on the line will ask questions about whether you’re safe and what support you need.

Calls are routed by area code, not by location, so callers with Oklahoma area codes will be routed to the Oklahoma City call center operated by Solari Crisis and Human Services. If you have an out-of-state area code, your call will be routed based on that state.

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