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Supporting the Future 988 Crisis Line Through a Week of Action

30 Nov 2021 — 4 min read

By Taylor Kleffel, AFSP Manager of State Policy

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Dark blue banner with lifesavers

Raising the Bar for Suicide Prevention: Reflecting on the 2021 International Summit for Suicide Prevention Research

In October 2020, the federal National Suicide Hotline Designation Act (S.2661) became law, designating 988 as the future 3-digit number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline nationwide. This was a historic victory for the suicide prevention community, and a national recognition of the importance of responding to suicide and mental health crises. Since then, AFSP has been leading efforts to pass state legislation to support and establish sustainable funding for 988 and crisis response services, and to put in place the infrastructure necessary for a reimagined approach to national suicide crisis response.  

Since launching in 2005, the Lifeline’s call volume has increased 14% annually, and in 2020, the Lifeline received over 2.6 million calls. Full implementation and public promotion of the new 988 dialing code, which will officially go into effect this coming July, will likely result in even higher call volumes, requiring more resources and trained personnel to answer the phones.

But an effective crisis response system is not only about answering calls – for 988 to work, every state will need adequate funding for the three main components of a robust continuum of crisis care:

  1. Someone to talk to: 24/7 crisis call centers that are adequately staffed by mental health professionals and volunteers who are specially trained to respond to crises,
  2. Someone to respond: mobile crisis response teams that provide acute stabilization and assessment services to individuals within their own homes and in other locations outside of traditional clinical settings, and
  3. Somewhere to go: crisis respite and stabilization centers that provide short-term supervised care for individuals in acute distress to help de-escalate the severity of the crisis, avoid unnecessary hospitalization, and connect them to follow-up care.

There’s no time to waste. State leaders and lawmakers need to act now to provide sustainable funding and support to ensure the crisis centers and services in their communities are prepared to meet increased demand, and so all residents have access to timely, effective crisis care.

That’s why, on November 16, community leaders and advocates from across the country came together for REIMAGINE: A Week of Action to Reimagine Our National Response to People in Crisis, a three-day virtual event to learn more about 988 and the actions people can take to help to build a comprehensive crisis response system in their state. AFSP is proud to have partnered with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and close to 40 other organizations on this impactful event. Mental health and suicide prevention volunteers heard from state lawmakers, leading experts, people with lived experience, and other stakeholders about what 988 means for the future of crisis service systems. Together, attendees and speakers discussed the unique opportunity 988 presents for us to change the way that we as a country respond to mental health and suicidal crises.

Each day kicked off with fireside chats, during which attendees heard the personal stories of families and individuals with lived experience who have been failed by our current crisis system. These stories were followed by panel discussions, during which members of the law enforcement community, healthcare workers, and civil rights groups explored how crisis response intersects with other key societal factors. AFSP National Board Member Victor Armstrong, Chief Health Equity Officer for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, participated in a conversation on the issue of crisis response and racial equity, and how the current system can often lead to trauma and tragedy for people of color.

In the afternoon, the event switched gears to 988 Advocacy Intensive strategy sessions, during which AFSP Field Ambassadors and other 988 advocacy leaders learned more about policy details and empowering advocacy tactics to lead communities toward success in the implementation of 988 and beyond. On Tuesday, AFSP National Public Policy Council members Corbin Standley (AFSP – Michigan) and Jim Biela (AFSP – Alaska), along with Utah State Representative and suicide prevention champion Steve Eliason, guided participants in thinking strategically about how they can identify and successfully prepare the right legislator to champion 988 efforts in their state.

The following day, I joined NAMI during an Advocacy Intensive session to educate advocates on 988 user fees, the primary focus of AFSP’s advocacy efforts this past year. Federal law now allows each state to pass their own legislation funding 988 and their local in-state crisis call centers the same way as 911, through monthly telecom customer service fees. During this session, attendees learned why these fees are important, how they can be used, and the best ways to convince the public, partners, and policymakers that they are needed.  

On the last day of the event, in a session on strategies for engaging state advocates around 988, Chelsey Dumond, AFSP Senior Manager of Public Policy Events and Projects, shared with participants how to successfully make an impact during in-person events and meetings, like AFSP’s signature State Capitol Day events, held in all 50 states and D.C. each year.

REIMAGINE was truly an informative and inspirational event, and left attendees better prepared for impactful 988 advocacy heading into 2022. Thank you to all advocates who participated and who will make meaningful changes in 988 planning and implementation efforts in states across the country. It is because of your hard work that we will truly #ReimagineCrisis and create a more compassionate, accessible crisis response system for all.

Learn more about AFSP’s work on 988 and crisis services and connect with your local chapter to get involved with advocacy efforts in your state.

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