Problems with “988” crisis hotline start-up

Most people have memorized their Social Security number, cell phone number, anniversary, birthday and the 911 emergency medical, fire and police protection services number. On July 16, the number “988” became an easy-to-remember crisis hotline number we should log into our memory bank.
Dialing or texting 988 can be used by anyone who needs support for a suicidal, mental health, substance use crisis and/or other emotional issue. The new nation-wide set-up should strengthen and expand the existing Lifeline system, which is a national network of over 200 local, independent and state-funded crisis centers.
Both the new 988 hotline number and the previous 10-digit number (800-273-8255) will remain in operation, providing 24/7 free and confidential support for people in distress.
Johns Hopkins Medicine reports (2022) an estimated 26 percent of Americans over age 18 suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. According to 2022 State of Mental Health Report from Mental Health America, the US has witnessed—every year since 2011—nearly a 5 percent increase of adults having serious thoughts of suicide. In 2020 alone, the US had one death by suicide about every 11 minutes and is a leading cause of death for 10-34 year-olds and veterans.
However, problems abound with America’s readiness for the 988 hotline number, which was unanimously approved by the US House and Senate in 2020. Despite a federal mandate and $430 million allocated to states to expand their crisis networks, federal officials note “few states have kept their end of the bargain” (Politico, July 12).
Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa and Missouri are among 29 states – predominantly Republican driven—that did not introduce any legislation to address 988 hotline funding. Only 21 states enacted legislation to ensure local call centers will be fully funded (Axios, July 15).
Secondly, Wall Street Journal data revealed about one is six calls to the heretofore 10-digit national mental-health crisis line weren’t answered (July 12). It’s tragic this mishandling of calls was not rectified prior to implementing the new 988 hotline.
Third, state and federal officials project the 988 easy-to-memorize hotline number will create an increase from over 3.3 million contacts per year to six to 12 million calls, texts or chats annually. According to a recent Rand report, “fewer than half of the public health officials responsible for deploying 988 say they are confident their communities have the necessary staff, financing or equipment to field the anticipated surge of calls” (Axios, July 15).
Finally, Xavier Becerra, Secretary, US Health and Human Services (HHS), expressed concern that more than half of the states were sending most of their crisis calls to 15 out-of-state backup call centers. State health officials say “in-state call centers are more familiar with local services, including the availability of mobile response teams, psychiatric urgent care facilities and crisis stabilization beds” (Politico, July 12).
On a positive note, the Associated Press reports with the 988 hotline number, instead of police, firefighters or paramedics being dispatched, callers will be connected with mental-health professionals (Wall Street Journal, July 16-17). It is reported at least a third of 911 emergency calls to which police respond could instead be safely directed to mental-health first responders, reducing the risk of a tragic encounter with police (Wall Street Journal, July 9-10).
Mental health is a serious issue. It’s a shame—no, make that gross negligence—that 29 state legislatures did not address fully funding the federal mandate to protect their citizens with mental health conditions. No governor is exempt from blame, since HHS sent a letter to every governor telling them how their mental health hotlines ranked.
Memorize 988, as it may be needed to save a loved one you know, including yourself.

Steve Corbin is a non-paid freelance opinion editor and guest columnist (circa 2013) contributor to 192 newspapers in 31 states who receives no remuneration, funding or endorsement from any for-profit business, not-for-profit organization, political action committee or political party.

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