By Kyle Chvasta

Who can you call during a mental health crisis? Is 911 the appropriate number to call? If you call 911 when you or someone you care for is having a mental health crisis, the police will most likely show up. Are they the most appropriate resource during a suicidal crisis though? Let’s talk about this and why 988 could be a better alternative and point out some challenges and solutions.  

You could call 911 in a crisis. But, in these situations, there are limited actions police officers can take. They can take a person to the hospital if they want to go, they can also take someone for an involuntary psychiatric hold, or they can perform a wellness check 

The capacity of, and way in which police respond to any crisis is also an important consideration. If you’ve been tuned in to current events over the last 8 years or so, you probably noticed serious attention on the need for police training around crisis de-escalation. Activists and community members are concerned for the safety and protection of marginalized people in the US and the assurance that people are protected and helped during a crisis, not harmed. Now, more than ever, people are questioning if a badge and a gun are the right response when people are in crisis.  

This is where 988 comes in. To facilitate more appropriate responses to mental health crises. Or at least attempt to. 

The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) is a network of hundreds of crisis centers across the United States that provides 24/7 service via a toll-free hotline by texting or dialing 9-8-8.  

988 is available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. The caller (or texter) is routed to their nearest crisis center to receive immediate counseling and local mental health referrals. The Lifeline supports people who call for themselves or someone they care about. 

The ultimate goals of 988 are to: 

  • Offer a viable and appropriate alternative to calling 911. 
  • Connect a person in a mental health crisis to a trained counselor who can address their immediate needs and help connect them to care. 
  • Reduce healthcare spending with more cost-effective early interventions. 
  • Reduce law enforcement, public health, and other safety resources. 
  • Meet the growing need for crisis interventions. 
  • Help combat stigma toward those seeking or accessing mental healthcare. 

988 will have a greater chance of success if it is effectively resourced and disseminated. Some states and municipalities are making efforts to support the funding and rollout of 988. Oregon became the first state to receive federal approval for Medicaid to reimburse mobile crisis intervention services, and in Oakland, CA they rolled out a program modeled after Oregon’s 

Interest in 988 is high. Political and policy will are there. People and states are enthusiastic about this program. So, what are some concerns? 

Disability advocates were concerned about how accessible 988 is for everyone, particularly for nonverbal individuals. This resulted in a texting option 

But there are still some outstanding questions by the advocacy community. Some asked if the response by the call centers would vary state by state. Considering the varied legislative makeup across the country. And others want to know who picks up the phone when we call 988, and what is the quality of the local services someone gets rerouted to? 

Unpacking these questions is essential for policymakers, so they can understand how to continue to improve 988.  We plan to do this through a series of blogs, live discussions, and sharing statistics. We will discuss the successes, the challenges, and recommendations for improvements. Stay tuned as we begin discussing the ins and outs of this new federal initiative.