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In WA, it might soon be easier to get mental health help over the phone

Seattle Times - 4/18/2024

Apr. 17—Washington state is heading into a new stage as it tries to develop better systems for responding to mental health crises: It's placing counselors for its 988 mental health crisis hotline alongside staff who answer 911 calls.

On Tuesday, officials from across King County and the state gathered in Kent to announce the creation of a call hub staffed by both 911 call-takers and crisis counselors. The move, which is part of a broader countywide effort to integrate its crisis-response system, is intended to cut back on the use of emergency responders and smooth people's paths to more appropriate mental health services when they need them.

The new program, which officially launched March 11, serves callers in several King County cities south of Seattle, including Kent, Auburn, Renton, Federal Way and Tukwila.

When someone calls 911 but they're in need of mental health services, their call will be diverted to someone on staff who is charged with operating the 988 line. When people call 911 and express a need for housing, financial or food assistance, they'll get redirected to staff in charge of 211, the state's social service line.

"We want to de-engineer some of this, so to speak, so that the public doesn't have to worry about, 'Did I call the right number, or, which number do I call?'" said Michelle McDaniel, CEO of Crisis Connections, one of the three Washington nonprofits that handle 988 calls.

Crisis Connections is hiring 11 staff to field 988 and 211 calls at the new hub. The program is housed at an existing 911 call center operated by Valley Communications Center, which serves a wide swath of King County callers south of Seattle. The new 988 line staff will join more than 100 staff who oversee the 911 line.

911 operators had the ability to transfer someone to 988 before the launch of the new program, and vice versa.

Embedding crisis counselors within the 911 center, though, could help build communities' trust in each of these systems and create a more seamless path between them, said Vonnie Mayer, executive director and health officer at Valley Communications Center.

"Not only do we transfer the calls, and handle the calls immediately, but we can talk about better ways to handle calls," Mayer said. "Oftentimes an emergency response will escalate [the situation] ... Being together and really looking at it holistically is the benefit."

Three three-digit lines

The call center now employs people who answer the state's three separate crisis and social service phone lines: 911, 988 and 211.

A majority of calls are coming from 911: about 2,000 calls a day, said Mayer. In cases where callers are reporting an emergency — a fire, car crash, violence, or instances where someone is in imminent danger of hurting themselves or others — their call could lead to the arrival of an ambulance or police.

But 911 staff often receive calls that don't merit that kind of response, said McDaniel. The new center should "more quickly take those calls from 911 to the right place," she said.

When a caller needs a different kind of service, dispatchers transfer them to someone better suited to provide mental health or social service resources. Since the new program's launch in March, about 100 calls to 911 were redirected to staff who oversee the 988 and 211 hotlines, Mayer said.

Washington is in its second year of rolling out 988, an all-hours, free nationwide crisis line that was created in July 2022 to replace a 10-digit suicide-prevention hotline.

People can call or text the line when they're in crisis or know someone else in need of care. Callers are paired with counselors who offer a listening ear or can help schedule them for a next-day appointment. The phone line is accessible to people who speak Spanish, and interpreter services are available in more than 250 languages. Callers can also get connected to the Native and Strong Crisis Lifeline, where calls are answered by Native crisis counselors.

Usually, the mental health calls can be directly resolved by counselors, just by talking. In limited cases, people could be connected with mobile crisis teams who respond in person, and the county is hoping to expand the availability of mobile crisis response in the coming years.

A 988 call could result in a 911 response if someone's life is in danger and crisis counselors are unable to resolve the concern on the phone, but this is very rare, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

In its first year of operation, about 7,000 to 8,600 Washingtonians called the line each month, according to a state report from November.

The new call center in Kent is one of three such hubs statewide: The Washington State Department of Health received about $1.5 million from lawmakers during the 2023 legislative session to fund the centers, including two operated by other nonprofits that oversee the 988 line, said Michele Roberts, DOH's assistant secretary for prevention and community health.

About $600,000 from those funds will support the new Kent hub for one year. This funding and other dollars to support 988 come from a statewide phone and internet tax that went into effect in 2023.


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