Virginia’s mental health hotline launches amid fears it won’t meet expectations
New 988 number, billed as part of the state’s crisis system expansion, won’t guarantee immediate access to services
On Saturday, Virginia was part of a nationwide transition to 988, a simple three-digit hotline for mental health emergencies.
The new number replaced the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a longer — and harder to remember — 800 number that connected to a patchwork of local call centers across the country. The shift, which first began in Virginia last year, has already boosted call volumes by 25 percent and experts expect thousands more calls, texts and messages as awareness of the hotline grows across the state.
The centralized number is intended to streamline the current call-in process, making it far more likely that people will reach a responder on the first dial. But in Virginia, the hotline is also linked to the state’s build-out of crisis response services. Legislation that funded expanded call centers specifically listed the deployment of mobile crisis and community care teams as part of their duties and responsibilities. The ultimate goal is to dispatch trained providers out to calls that can’t be de-escalated over the phone, ideally within an hour after the call is received, said John Lindstrom, CEO of the Richmond Behavioral Health Authority.
However, the capacity to respond to those calls still varies widely across Virginia’s highly regionalized system of community service boards — the state and locally funded agencies tasked with providing crisis care services. Lindstrom said workforce shortages and varying funding levels have made hiring more challenging, preventing many CSBs from quickly scaling up those teams.
So while Virginia’s 988 call centers are fully up and running, there’s still wide variability in how quickly local agencies can launch a response — and what services they’re able to provide. Some mental health advocates worry it will confuse callers and potentially sow distrust in the system if people in crisis don’t receive the response they expect from the hotline, which some media outlets have described as “the mental health equivalent of 911.”
“I do have a concern there will be raised expectations,” said Bruce Cruser, executive director of the state’s affiliate of Mental Health America, an advocacy group for behavioral supports and services.
“The messaging has been confusing, not just in Virginia but throughout the country,” he continued. “And I think we should be clear that if you’re feeling suicidal or you’re in crisis, you can call 988 and you will be connected with a trained professional. But it does not mean you will immediately be able to connect with community resources.”
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