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Calling 988 in the U.S. will now get you help for a mental health crisis

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Beginning today, anyone in the country having a mental health crisis can dial a three-digit number for help. The new 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline replaces the existing 10-digit number and will respond to all mental health emergencies. But as Rhitu Chatterjee reports, the number will only be as good as the resources behind it.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Until now, the vast majority of people with mental illness didn't have many choices to get help during crises. Psychologist Ben Miller is president of Well Being Trust.

BEN MILLER: There's really very few options for an individual who's experiencing those crises. They go to the emergency room, or they call 911. And both of those are fraught with challenges that rarely end with the individual receiving what they need.

CHATTERJEE: With emergency rooms, it can take hours or even days for someone in a mental health crisis to get help. And 911 often leads to interactions with the police.

MILLER: Unfortunately, a lot of our police officers, they are not trained in mental health. And so we have unfortunate tragedies that occur because they just simply don't know how to respond to individuals that are experiencing mental health crises.

CHATTERJEE: He says over 2 million people with serious mental illness got booked in jails last year, and about 25% of fatal shootings by the police involved folks with mental illness - people like Miles Hall, a 23-year-old African American man who was shot by the police in 2019.

TAUN HALL: He was just a great kid. He was just the kind of - you know, he'd walk in a room, and he had this infectious smile.

CHATTERJEE: That's Taun Hall, Miles's mother. She says Miles was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, and one day back in 2019, when he had a breakdown, the family called 911.

HALL: I'm telling them Miles is in a mental health emergency. We need help. We need an ambulance.

CHATTERJEE: And yet her son was shot and killed by the police just outside their house.

HALL: I had a false expectation that if law enforcement knew him and they knew he just had a mental health condition that he would be treated with compassion and he wouldn't be gunned down in the middle of the street on a bright, sunny day in our cul-de-sac. There is no reason Miles should have been killed that day.

CHATTERJEE: Hall is among the many mental health advocates who hope that 988 will be a safer, more effective alternative. Angela Kimball is with the advocacy group Inseparable. She says many communities across the country have been adding mental health services in preparation for 988, things like mobile crisis teams.

ANGELA KIMBALL: That's really encouraging news, because more and more communities will have that as a potential response, and that makes a huge difference.

CHATTERJEE: And she's personally seen what a difference that can make for families. Back in 2017, her son, who was living in Portland, Ore., had a major manic episode.

KIMBALL: He was talking about how soap was poison and how he felt like he was being surveilled and then accusing me of conspiring with the government to watch over him.

CHATTERJEE: She says she reached out to a local crisis center who sent a mobile crisis team to her son's house. She says they spoke very gently to her son.

KIMBALL: They just said, hey, Alex, we hear that you haven't been sleeping for a few days. How are you doing? He says, yeah, I can't go to sleep. You know, my head is hurting, and I just want to fall asleep, but I can't.

CHATTERJEE: Kimball says her son willingly went with the team to a crisis stabilization unit and was able to get care right away. Mental health advocates hope that 988 will make that kind of care more common around the country. But it may take a while to get there because the nearly 200 local call centers that make up the national network have primarily depended on local and state funding and have been struggling to survive.

JOHN DRAPER: They've been operating on a shoestring for many, many years.

CHATTERJEE: John Draper is with Vibrant Emotional Health, which operates the lifeline. In 2020, the National Suicide Hotline received nearly 2 million calls but was only able to respond to 85% of callers. The federal government has just invested over $400 million to expand the network's capacity, as calls and texts are expected to double in the next year. And Draper says he's already seeing an impact.

DRAPER: Right now, we're answering over 90% of our chats. Back this time last year, it was closer to 22, 23%. So that gives you a sense of what happens when you're able to provide a significant amount of funding.

CHATTERJEE: But states have a lot more to do in supporting 988. Only 16% have budgeted for the service, and only one state, Rhode Island, is able to respond to 99% of callers. But mental health advocates hope today is just the beginning of a new era for mental health. Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.