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988, Behavioral Health Services, and Better Crisis Response

Beginning July 16, 2022, the 988 crisis hotline will be fully operational. Those across the United States experiencing or witnessing a mental health crisis will now have a dedicated line to call and talk with a trained counselor. This has the potential to positively impact the state of crisis prevention and intervention in the U.S. But 988 will need the help of behavioral health organizations to ensure its long-term success.

The reasons for 988

The overarching reason for the creation of 988 is to increase access to mental healthcare nationwide. By making access to such care easier, more individuals will get the help they need. This, in turn, may help to decrease the stigma associated with mental health issues and those experiencing them.

Following on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic, this service is sorely needed. In a report from Mental Health America, researchers found concerning trends regarding youth and adult mental health across the U.S. According to this study, 10.6% of American youth (and 14.5% of American youth who identify as more than one race), have severe depression — this comes to 2.5 million young Americans. Even more youth (15%) went through a major depressive episode in the past year. As disturbing as these trends are, they are just a snapshot of the state of mental health in the U.S.

The role of COVID-19 and the isolation-associated quarantine cannot be overstated. While poor mental health has been a growing issue for some time, feelings of loneliness, helplessness, and isolation only increased during quarantine. The resultant mental health effects can be seen in the numbers discussed above. And as rates of issues such as substance use disorder, domestic violence, and suicide continue to rise as a result of COVID-19 and its aftermath, 988 needs to become a part of how behavioral health organizations operate.

Using 988 to mitigate behavioral health crises

A core component of 988, especially for those working in behavioral health, is its potential to mitigate crisis situations before they escalate. With centers located across the country, each call to 988 will be answered by a trained counselor. According to the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA):

“Calls will be answered by trained crisis operators prepared to assess and de-escalate crises over the phone, connect callers to additional services, and dispatch a mobile crisis team where available.”

Through these services, crisis intervention and prevention efforts across the country could see a serious boost. In fact, various studies have shown that individuals who use current crisis call centers report feeling less depressed, suicidal, or overwhelmed than before they made the call.

In addition to their ability to mitigate crises over the phone, 988 centers will work closely with law enforcement and 911 centers to ensure those in need of behavioral health assistance receive the care they need, rather than a police response.

This potential to avoid unnecessary encounters with law enforcement will help to make the jobs of police officers easier, while also keeping those going through a mental health crisis safer. A 2015 study showed that one in 10 law enforcement responses were in response to a mental health crisis, while one in four of all fatal police shootings occurred while responding to such crises. Through 988, both officers and the subject of the response will be better served. Through a behavioral health response, the subjects of these calls can receive the care they need on the spot, reducing the chance of incurring further trauma.

How to work with 988 at your behavioral health organization

While 988 is a nation-wide effort organized by several governmental agencies, your behavioral health organization can still integrate this new tool into your practice. You can achieve this in several ways. Here, however, we’ll focus on two larger processes to adopt: developing a cross-system response and integrating the new crisis response system into your larger mental health services.

988 will never exist in a vacuum — its success will depend on the cooperation of state and local governments, as well as agencies like yours, already embedded in the community. As such, it’s important to advocate for your organization’s role as a stakeholder in 988’s success and work to integrate your services into 988’s response system.

One way to do this is to work with local law enforcement. Help them to better understand 988, behavioral health needs, and what your organization can do to assist individuals experiencing mental or behavioral health crises. This way, if a crisis call comes through 911, rather than 988, law enforcement will be more likely to defer to behavioral health responses.

By integrating your organization into the 988 response system, you can become a resource for follow up needs those in crisis may have, such as outpatient appointments. Not only will this allow your organization to become key stakeholders in the success of 988, it will help to broaden the reach of your mission within the community. As stated by Mental Health America:

“People accessing the 988 system will need to be connected to community-based resources and follow up.”

Reach out to local law enforcement, as well as state and local government behavioral health agencies, to see where you can fit into this system.

To ensure the success of these follow up appointments, training and upskilling your behavioral health clinicians in managing suicidal clients or those who are referred to you after a crisis will be key. This way, everyone in your organization will have the knowledge and experience to handle crises appropriately.

988, behavioral health, and better crisis response

By July 16, 2022, 988 will be available nationwide. This is a crucial step in crisis intervention and prevention efforts. By creating a response system, individuals in crisis will receive the appropriate help in a more timely manner, while also putting less strain on existing response systems that are not trained or equipped to handle these situations. Your organization should begin working as soon as possible with the 988 system to become a behavioral health resource. In this way, you can help to ensure the success of this valuable program while also expanding the reach of your services.


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