As 988 launch date approaches, progress on crisis hotline builds

By Hermes Falcon, Youthcast Media Group™

A new hotline launches July 16 to handle mental health and substance use crises in place of 911. Similarly to 911, the hotline is only three numbers long: 988.

From left to right, top to bottom, Hannah Wesolowski, chief advocacy officer at NAMI, Paul Galdys, deputy CEO at RI Internation, Jamie Sellar, chief strategy officer at RI International, and Chuck Browning take part in a NAMICon 2022 discussion.

Speakers at Virtual NAMICon 2022 conference “Together for Mental Health” in June discussed the importance of this new hotline and steps still needed to make it the best possible resource for those in crisis.

The National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020 was signed into law in 2022 and requires telephone carriers to enable calls to 988 for suicide prevention and mental health emergencies by July 16.

“Our current crisis response fails communities. It fails those in mental health and substance use crises and their families, and this has happened for far too long. We are at a place where we can make a difference,” said Paul Galdys, deputy CEO at RI International, a global organization working towards healthcare innovation that will support people overcoming their behavioral health needs.

The push for 988 began when the rates of mentally ill people dying during a police encounter kept rising throughout the years. In 2021, 1,054 people going through a mental health crisis died during a police encounter, according to The Washington Post. In 2016, the number of deaths was at 968.

Currently, if U.S. citizens want mental health help, they need to dial a 10-digit phone number to reach the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. While the number is available 24/7, crisis counselors cannot dispatch mobile crisis teams in an emergency. In many locations, however, counselors at 988 can.

Shannon Scully, senior advisor for justice and crisis response Policy at NAMI.

“They’ll have highly trained staff with the ability to go ahead and dispatch these mobile teams, ” said Jamie Sellar, chief strategy officer at RI International. “They have a lot of analogy[sic] to ambulance services but have quicker response times, and will be able to get out there in the community and be able to stabilize people in the field.”

“Those mobile crisis teams should be able to go where people live, work, and play … with the goal of diverting them away from the emergency department, and the criminal justice system,” he added.

For many in crisis, the only way to receive treatment is at an emergency department, but a nationwide psychiatric bed shortage leaves many waiting in hallways and at the ER, according to doctors in New York, Colorado, and Massachusetts interviewed by ABCNews. Others call 911 when there is a crisis at hand, but regret it later as police often have shot and killed those in crisis.

“We have inconsistent crisis systems across the country,” said Galdys. “We see emergency departments that are ill-equipped to serve individuals, boarding them for hours or days at a time as they wait to get psychiatric mental health or substance use care.”

Shannon Scully, senior advisor for justice and crisis response Policy at NAMI, added that a lack of reliable mental health services has created an “over-reliance” on the law enforcement and criminal justice system.

In theory, 988 will help those in crisis bypass emergency departments and police encounters, and solve the problem at the source with the help of trained individuals on the phone and mobile crisis teams.

“Getting crisis care on your worst day, your toughest day, is incredibly difficult to navigate,” said Sellar. “What we’re hoping is that 988 allows that single point of contact so on your worst day, on your family’s worst day, there’s one number to call that will go ahead and support them getting into the right level of care at the right time.”

Christina Roup, director of programs at CIT International

Yet despite the promises of 988 fully launching July 16, many wonder if the hotline will be ready both staff-wise and budget-wise.

“The numbers can get quite large,” said Christina Roup, director of programs at CIT International. “But the important thing to remember is that many people are involved in the crisis response system … so we can develop a very compassionate system that is going to help respond to individuals.”

“There’s going to most likely be a training committee looking to deliver crisis intervention team training to those very special selected officers that are really truly compassionate and interested in this role,” she added.

No matter what states have approved for their budgets and what amount of staff is available, 988 will be available nationwide on July 16.

“This is a continuous advocacy movement, and we’re closer to the starting line than the finish line,” said Hannah Wesolowski, chief advocacy officer at NAMI. “It’s gonna take years of work, and every day we’re one step closer to where we need to be.”