New 988 Mental Health Hotline Is Just the Beginning

The National Alliance on Mental Illness was one of many organizations advocating for a national hotline for people in crisis. With the new phone number active, the organization is now focused on making sure people get ongoing help after the emergency has passed.

If you’re in a mental health crisis, the last thing you want to do is try to remember a 10-digit phone number, or worse, have to look up your local crisis hotline. That’s why the National Alliance on Mental Illness celebrated the recent federal rollout of the nationwide 988 mental health crisis hotline.

“We have needed something like this for a long time, but the pandemic certainly exacerbated the need,” said Hannah Wesolowski, NAMI chief advocacy officer. “We want to make sure that crisis care is accessible and easy for anyone who needs it. So, 988 can really be that one-stop shop in most states, rather than having to navigate a network of different crisis lines.”

While NAMI is pleased 988 is active, it says this is just the beginning of what’s needed.

“The number is an important step forward, but we want it to be part of a larger crisis continuum of care,” Wesolowski said. “We’ve been advocating for resources to make 988 as robust as possible and also add those additional crisis services.”

Funding Needed

NAMI is urging funding for services related to the number, like local call routing, mobile crisis units, and workforce development to ensure there are enough trained counselors to meet demand.

Call routing is a high priority for NAMI. While all callers to 988 speak to a professionally trained counselor, the counselor is not always local. Ideally, when people call they will be routed to a local call center.

“A local call center is going to be best situated to give you resources in your community,” Wesolowski said. “Our goal is not just to address the current crisis, but to make sure people get the help they need to get well and stay well. We don’t want them to cycle back into crisis.”

Some local call centers, she said, can schedule same-day or next-day appointments with a therapist, so the caller can start treatment and have a support system in place for the future. NAMI also wants funding for more mobile mental health crisis units, which can be called rather than law enforcement to provide crisis response.

“For too long, we’ve criminalized mental health crises, and this really presents an opportunity to change that paradigm,” Wesolowski said. “We want mobile crisis teams, which are made up of nurses, social workers, and peer support specialists, to be available in every community. We want that to be the first response we’re sending out when an in-person response is needed.”

NAMI has started the #ReimagineCrisis initiative to help organizations rethink the way the nation responds to individuals experiencing a mental health, suicide, or substance-use crisis.

Finally, the organization is seeking more funding for workforce development in the field, which, like many other professions, is experiencing a shortage of workers. Major news outlets, from the Wall Street Journal to the Washington Post, have reported on how difficult it is to find a therapist these days.

“The mental health workforce is a huge challenge,” Wesolowski said. “We saw this before the pandemic, but the increasing mental health needs arising out of the pandemic have certainly put more strain on that system.”

NAMI thinks it’s crucial to get more people in the pipeline, and then help take care of those workers so they can succeed.

“When you look at 988 counselors, for example, that is not an easy job,” Wesolowski said. “You’re often talking to people on the worst day of their lives. It’s a job that has a high burnout rate. So, we need to be thinking about the wellness of the people who are part of this crisis response system, and really ensuring we have systems in place to help them and help their mental health as they’re helping other people.”

(courtneyk/iStock Unreleased)

Rasheeda Childress

By Rasheeda Childress

Rasheeda Childress is a former editor at Associations Now. MORE

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