Hotline Staff Push for Fixes to 988 System

Since the national mental health hotline launched a year ago, it has fielded more than 5 million calls.  The people behind the system, however, say they are still working out some kinks.  Others, however, think the biggest issue 988 may have is getting Americans to use it.

First, the problems with the system don’t mean it is not working.  There are over 200 local call centers around the country.  Calls, texts, and online chats to the 988 line have continued to increase since the number first launched in July 2022, with about 250,000 contacts that month. By comparison, over 400,000 calls and messages were made in May of this year.

Amid such volume, each center strives to answer calls at least 95% of the time, with varied success. In May 2023, 18 states had phone answer rates above 90%, according to data from Vibrant, the company that administers the line. Across the network nationally, 89% of calls were answered that month.  That is far from the 100% desired.

Workforce issues and the lack of permanent funding are also playing into problems 988 is facing.  At one point in December, the entire system went dark for hours with no calls answered.

These are all problems that are being addressed.  Theresa Gaffney of Stat wrote an in-depth article on the issues and you can read more of them here.


Is the Biggest Problem Getting Americans to Use 988?

Only 33% of Americans are at least somewhat familiar with the number and the service it provides, according to a survey of more than 2,000 adults conducted by Ipsos and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) conducted in June 2023. A larger percentage of Americans had at least heard of 988 (63%), but didn’t know much more about it. Still, this was an improvement compared with September 2022, when only 44% of Americans had heard about it at all.

The survey also suggests some people may be hesitant to call 988 because they’re concerned about getting the police involved. An average of 60% of respondents said they were afraid that they or a loved one could be hurt by the police intervening in a mental health crisis. This is an even bigger fear among members of marginalized groups, concerning 78% of LGBTQ+ people, 77% of Black people, and 75% of Hispanic people, compared to 53% of white people.

Racial differences in perceptions of 988 also appeared in survey participants’ attitudes towards funding mental health services. In particular, Black people were almost twice as likely as white people to say that mental health services should be the highest priority for federal funding (42% vs. 23%), and more than twice as likely to say that federal funding for 988 should be the highest priority than white people (27% vs. 13%).

Like the logistical issues of 988, these perception issues are also being addressed.  Annalisa Merelli of Stat delves into what is happening across the country.  Read her article here.

To read more on the first year stats for 988, revisit the NCMS article from July 19, 2023 here.