988 crisis line sees successes and struggles in its first year

Virginia has averaged about 6,000 calls a month on the 988 line since it first launched.
Published: Aug. 2, 2023 at 6:27 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - The 988 crisis lifeline recently marked one year in existence. While it’s helped thousands of people, it still has much more potential.

Virginia has averaged about 6,000 calls a month on the 988 line, which simplified the system of the former National Suicide Lifeline.

“Over the last 12 months, we’ve had somewhere in the neighborhood of 77,000 calls to the five call centers, and that’s a 50% increase from the 12 months prior,” said Curt Gleeson, the assistant commissioner for Crisis Services in the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.

However, Bruce Cruser, the executive director of the Mental Health of America of Virginia, says many people still don’t know about the 988 line or what it does.

“You don’t have to call 911,” he said. “You can call 988 if you or a loved one are in a mental health crisis, and you can also call it if you are in a substance use crisis, or a family member is in crisis, or you just need to find out what you need to do to help somebody.”

Cruser says the hotline launched with a limited capacity with plans to expand over time.

“They’re flying the plane while they’re building it ... that kind of analogy,” he said. “The system, as it was envisioned, has not yet fully been built. In other words, there’s not yet the community continuum of care.”

Compared to other states, Cruser says Virginia is ahead of the curve.

“Virginia actually is ahead of many states in terms of having built into the capacity to handle the calls,” he said. “And they are handling almost all the calls now that come to Virginia.”

Gleeson says the average caller can expect an answer within 20 seconds, but one of the challenges with 988 is what happens after a caller hangs up.

Cruser says this is one of the biggest challenges as the mental health industry grapples with staffing shortages.

“It’s one thing to break the stigma and finally convince someone to ask for help,” Cruser said. “Are you setting them up if you do that, and then they call for help, and there is no help, or they have to wait three months.”

One of the biggest components, 988 is the addition of crisis response teams specializing in de-escalating mental health emergencies.

Richmond launched these types of teams in 2022. In the first six months, the teams responded to 227 calls and none of them resulted in force or injury.

However, not every locality has one yet.

“Virginia currently only has about half of the mobile crisis response teams that it really needs,” Cruser said.

Gleeson says his department is working to develop a broader continuum of services beyond the 988 phone call.