New 988 Hotline for Mental Health
By Dianne Anderson
Provided that the community and grassroots organizations know that it exists, the new 988 hotline – similar to 911 – goes live this week to help callers in mental health crises with intervention.
The state of California received $20 million to help get more staffing into existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline call centers that are set to launch on July 16. The three-digit hotline is a national effort passed by Congress in 2020.
But given an undeniable rise of mental health needs in the Black community, local advocate Linda Hart worries about how Black callers will be directed to culturally relevant resources.
“How will call centers be working follow-up and resources for the Black community, especially since there is such an increase in suicide among Blacks?” said Hart, founder of the African American Mental Health Coalition in the Inland Empire.
Hart, who has worked on mental health outreach for over a decade, said it’s going to be critical for the community to access the right kind of follow-up. During the pandemic, her staff was part of the certified COVID-19 crisis response team, and very familiar with the type of text and chat portal that is being offered with the new 988 number.
To date, she hasn’t heard anything about 988, but she said she will send some of her staff to access the job opportunities.
“I’ve been working in the system for years. I’m talking to families who don’t know where to go and what to do. We need more outreach, billboards, they have millions of dollars and they couldn’t spend some of that on Black media?” she said. “Black people read Black newspapers.”
No matter where she turns, she said the Black community is not getting the help needed. She brought concerns before local behavioral health regarding why only 1% of the Black community has been reached with resources.
“I requested how many African Americans [were assisted] and they said 1%, but they didn’t give actual numbers. When you say one percent, is it one person or two? We want to know actual numbers,” she said.
Rhonda Smith with the California Black Health Network said from her understanding of the funding going toward the call center network, she doesn’t see any specific attention geared toward the Black community.
Infrastructure is key, and she hopes counties can ensure that they are doing proper outreach.
“I would rather see the funds go to creating more people on the ground in communities, who are trained and certified as mental health first aid responders, and who are from the community,” she said.
She feels that some of the funding could be used in better ways.
“This is where the investment in capacity building needs to happen to build a sustainable infrastructure that meets people where they are. Unfortunately, county-run services do not always work efficiently to serve the communities and the individuals in need,” she said.
Eric Burroughs, health chair of the 100 Black Men of Long Beach, said he also wasn’t aware of the new number.
Through the nonprofit, he has collaborated with many local health outreach events, focused on areas of health impacting the Black community, including breast cancer, prostate cancer, and mental health.
As 988 goes live, he said he’ll share the information wherever he can.
“I haven’t heard anything or seen anything. That’s a lot of money. I’ll keep an eye out for it,” he said.
Dani Bennett, spokesperson for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Agency (SAMHSA), said there are more than 200 centers in the Lifeline network with 15 backup centers, including five Spanish speaking centers and 26 chat/text nationwide centers.
SAMHSA is the lead federal agency overseeing the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline transition, and provides funding to Vibrant Emotional Health, the Lifeline network administrator. The agency is working with over 200 Lifeline crisis centers on outreach strategies that they can implement at the local level.
Each center handles its own hiring and staffing. SAMHSA is inviting job seekers to visit their 988 web page.
She said the Biden-Harris administration has increased federal investments from $24M to $432M, which includes $150M signed into law in June 2022 via the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. Of the $282M previously made available, excluding Bipartisan Safer Communities, the funding has been focused on scaling up crisis centers.
“It included $105 million in grant funding to states and territories, provided by the American Rescue Plan, to improve response rates, increase capacity to meet future demand, and ensure calls initiated in their states or territories are first routed to local, regional, or state crisis call centers,” she said in an email.
Whether police or EMS will be automatically dispatched on calls, the 988 FAQs say that the main goal of the Lifeline is providing support during suicidal crisis or mental health-related distress. The website said that less than 2% of calls require emergency services like 911.
“While some safety and health issues may warrant a response from law enforcement and/or Emergency Medical Services (namely when a suicide attempt is in progress), the 988 coordinated response is intended to promote stabilization and care in the least restrictive manner,” the website says.
For more information, https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/988/jobs