Mental Health Hotline A Great Idea. Does California have the Funds to Make It Work?

9-8-8, the alternative to 911 as a mental health crisis hotline, is set to launch in California by next July.

Despite this legislation being a step in the right direction especially in conversations about mental health awareness, concerns arise in the implementation of it, especially when it comes to funding.

Right now, around $50 million is needed to support call centers and related crisis response services. Without funding, the crisis line could potentially endanger people who are seeking help because of the shortage of resources to keep the project going.

The 988 hotline will direct crisis callers to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline call centers, which are already currently experiencing an influx of calls in the past year due to mental health crises caused by the pandemic.

Next July when the 988 hotline goes up, these Lifeline centers are bound to experience an intensified volume of callers, and the current funding might not be enough to hold up.

People who could be calling these hotline numbers for aid could risk being put on hold or having their calls unanswered at all.

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Le Ondra Clark Harvey, CEO of the California Council of Community Behavioral Health Agencies says that call centers have already seen a 67% increase in volume in recent years, and the pandemic has only intensified the pressure.

Advocates are vocally supporting a bill called AB 988 that is supposed to cap phone calls at 80 cents per line, which could be used to fund the state’s hotline call centers and build out mobile crisis response services. However, the bill is opposed by several people in the telecommunications industry.

According to the CEO of the California Cable & Telecommunications Association Carolyn McIntyre, instead of 80 cents, their organization would like to see a 10 cent cap.

She said they are willing to compromise and say it’s ok to fund “the communications aspect” of 9-8-8 with a small fee, but believes “other services should be funded through the general fund or some other source”.

And yet, even with or without funding, crisis centers are bracing themselves for a rise in crisis callers especially due to the dire situations presented by the pandemic.

Versions of the bill were introduced in many different states, including Washington. Although, Rep. Tina Orwall, who authored the bill, said she had received similar pushback from the telecommunications industry, however, notes the importance and the necessity of the bill right now.

“​​We’re in a pandemic. There couldn’t be a more important time to implement this. People need it more than ever,” she said.

More bills, AB 118 and AB 2054, which call for the funding of mobile crisis services were introduced. State senator Sydney Kamlager modeled the former after the latter since it was vetoed. Since then, advocates for mental health have contacted Kamlager to volunteer and amplify the need for these 911 alternatives.

“If you let trained crisis people intervene, there’s a possibility that no one is going to get hurt.” One of Kamlager’s volunteers, Addie Kitchen said.

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