TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — In the month following the launch of a new national suicide hotline number, 988, there has been social media pushback due to what some callers describe as “nonconsensual active rescue.” Essentially, some Americans are concerned that by calling the new suicide hotline, they’ll be met with police officers rather than counselors, exacerbating mental health issues instead of working through them.
The number changed on July 16. In a Twitter thread a day later, a suicide researcher at Fordham University in New York described some of the concerns advocates and doctors studying mental health had about how people respond to suicide and crisis hotline calls, amid the system change.
Emily Krebs, the researcher at Fordham, said in their tweet thread that while 988 could be helpful to some in crisis and wanted people to know that the new crisis hotline “can and will trace your call and send police if they deem it necessary.” Krebs said it was a barrier for those seeking help, who may not call if they don’t believe it’ll remain confidential.
Additionally, Krebs said “police kill people with actual or assumed mental illnesses at very high rates,” and said law enforcement officers were “rarely” taught how to help in a mental health crisis. In the thread, Krebs said that “nonconsensual active rescue” frequently ends with patients “being locked in a psych ward without consent,” which causes the risk of suicide in those patients to “skyrocket after release,” according to a 2017 medical study.
Krebs also said part of the problem was the lack of trained crisis teams, and a need for localized crisis centers.
The availability of treatment is a problem for the whole country, according to a study by the RAND corporation. Published in June, the study found that as many as 39 million Americans suffered from mental health issues in 2019, and that ahead of the launch of 988 in July, the country may not have been ready to address those needs.
Their analysis, “the first effort to gauge national preparedness for the new mental health service debuting in July, interviewed 180 state, regional, and county behavioral health program directors who provide jurisdictional coverage for more than 120 million Americans.”
Of those surveyed, “fewer than half expressed confidence their jurisdiction was prepared in terms of financing, staffing, or infrastructure.” Less than half of the Americans identified as mentally ill in 2019 were treated for their conditions, according to RAND‘s working papers.
Vibrant Emotional Health is the company charged by the federal government with managing the new 988 system. The executive director of the hotline, John Draper, said they understand there are risks to having police or other law enforcement officers become involved in mental health crises.
“We know the best way for a person to remain safe from harm is for them to be empowered and to choose to be safe from harm,” Draper told NPR, saying dispatching police is a “last resort.”
Vibrant said, statistically, police are only sent to those experiencing a mental health crisis in 2% of cases or calls. With the most recent call data in 2020, Vibrant reported the number of Lifeline calls had grown to 2.4 million. At 2%, that means 48,000 Americans in a crisis are met with police instead of counseling. Comparatively, when the original hotline launched in 2005, there were only about 50,000 calls that year.
Draper told NPR that 988 is unable to geolocate callers. However, Krebs said in their Twitter thread that the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline does. In the thread, Krebs said those who call 988 won’t be able to know if their calls are confidential due to that difference, and said “transparency and consent” were key to a crisis line working the way it should.
Still, even with concerns over privacy, the new hotline implementation came with more funding to improve the crisis care system in the United States. Federal lawmakers provided a “40-folded increase this year from four years before – and has mounted an all-of-government approach to partner with state and local leaders to improve system capacity and performance and ultimately improve the health of our nation.”
As previously reported, the latest preliminary CDC mortality data showed that in the second quarter of 2021, roughly 14 suicides occurred for every 100,000 U.S. residents. In Florida, it was slightly lower at 13.2 per 100,000. It amounts to about a 30% increase in suicides in America since 1999, according to Vibrant.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration said anyone experiencing a mental health crisis or emotional distress should call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). People not in crisis who are seeking treatment options for mental health conditions should visit findtreatment.samhsa.gov or call 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
With the new 988 number, those in crisis can text or call, giving more contact options to find help, when needed.