Why is 988 Important
One in five people in the United States live with mental illness. In Texas, 6.4% of adults and 14.6% of adolescents reported having a major depressive episode in the past year. Almost 4,000 Texans died from suicide in 2019.Historical increases in mental illness and substance use disorders have made addressing behavioral health issues a top priority. The national push to implement 988 has led to a reimagining of the crisis response system that will reap benefits at an individual, local, state, and national level.
For many years, 911 has been the designated number for all emergencies, including crises. First responders, usually police, have little to no training in mental health. Crisis calls occur frequently and are challenging for both the officer and individuals with mental illness. Despite the best efforts of law enforcement, a police response may further distress the caller. Individuals experiencing crises must be handcuffed before being transported to a hospital or jail. In the most tragic scenarios, police officers or the individual in crisis may be injured or killed.
“Members of law enforcement do not serve as treatment providers for any other illness. It is difficult to imagine subjecting someone having a heart attack to arrest, or someone with cancer being transferred to a specialty center in handcuffs, in the back of a police cruiser. But regardless of the fact that severe mental illnesses are brain diseases, we persist in treating their behavioral manifestations as criminal acts." --Road Runners
The successful implementation of 988 will redirect behavioral health calls from 911 to a specialized response team. If necessary, individuals experiencing a crisis will have a safe place to stabilize outside of a crowded emergency room or prison. This diversion will benefit hospitals struggling with limited beds and workforce shortages during the pandemic. Because crisis centers can resolve most calls remotely, 988 will result in savings of time and money.
Perhaps the most important aspect of 988 is the hope it can give to marginalized populations, including racial minority groups, veterans, and the LGBTQ+ community. Many African Americans are afraid to dial 911 in a mental health emergency for fear of racial profiling. In 2020, 23% of calls to Lifeline in Texas were veterans. Comprehensive crisis care will be lifesaving to many, including children and youth who are at higher risk for depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts due to the uncertainty of a global pandemic.
For many years, professionals have advocated for parity in physical and mental health. Individuals with mental illness should be treated the same as anyone with a physical health condition or disability. Just like a heart attack, suicidal ideation requires an immediate response. The call to reimagine the national crisis response system is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shape the future of American mental health care.