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988 Brought A Rise In Mental Health Crisis Calls. Lawmakers Say It Needs More Funding

Congressman Tony Cárdenas stands at a podium. He wears a blue suit and to his right is a banner which has information for 988 -- the suicide and crisis lifeline. To his left is a white van that says 'Los Angeles County' on the door. It's one of L.A. County's therapeutic transport vans, which are staffed by unarmed teams who respond to mental health crises.
Congressman Tony Cárdenas at Thursday's news conference. To his left is one of L.A. County's therapeutic transport vans, which are staffed by unarmed teams who respond to mental health crises.
(Robert Garrova
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The new number to call for mental health crises, 988, officially went live about a month ago.

The launch of the new, easier-to-remember number has brought with it a spike in calls, and some lawmakers say it’s going to need more funding to be fully successful.

In Los Angeles, the nation’s largest crisis call center has seen a 50% bump in calls since 988 went live. Didi Hirsch, the nonprofit that operates the center, is looking to bring on at least 100 more counselors to meet that demand.

Those counselors — mostly volunteers who undergo extensive training — saw a record-breaking 15,500 calls, chats and texts in July alone, according to company CEO Lyn Morris.

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Some of the calls prompt an in-person response from the Department of Mental Health, which sends out unarmed teams of clinicians to try to de-escalate situations and get someone help.

“It’s difficult because we don’t have the number of teams available compared [with] the number of calls, said Miriam Brown, deputy director of the Emergency Outreach and Triage Division at L.A. County Department of Mental Health.

Assistance For Mental Health Crises Or Support

Currently, DMH has 30 two-person psychiatric mobile response teams that go out on calls around the county, as well as five specially-outfitted vans staffed by a driver, a mental health expert, and someone who has lived experience with mental illness. The county is also looking to contract with third parties that can provide mobile crisis response.

Lawmakers say it’s going to take more money to field all those calls, respond in person and have a place for people in psychiatric crisis to go in L.A.

Congressman Tony Cárdenas held a press conference Thursday calling for the passage of the 988 Implementation Act, which would provide hundreds of millions of federal dollars for both call centers and unarmed responders. Cárdenas is also pushing for a state bill that would add a surcharge to phone lines to beef up funding for call centers.

Cárdenas has also advocated for 988 as an alternative to the current system, where law enforcement is often the default response for mental health crises.

Congresswoman Karen Bass, who’s running for mayor of L.A., told the press conference that it was easy to see the link between mental health crises and law enforcement shootings during her work on police reform.

“I think it’s something that is unjust and unfair that we have left it to law enforcement to pick up the pieces, when society should be addressing these problems in a different way,” Bass said.

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People with untreated serious mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during an encounter with law enforcement than other civilians, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center. And 25% of people shot at by the LAPD from 2015-19 were perceived to have a mental illness.

Some have been critical of 988, arguing that police are still being dispatched in some situations.

Cárdenas said statistics on the number of 988 calls that resulted in a law enforcement response had not been “accumulated yet.”

“The bottom line is, with 988 we’re able to have a system that has more deployment of mental health professionals out to the situation, instead of the default being ... send out an armed police officer,” he said.

What questions do you have about mental health in SoCal?
One of my goals on the mental health beat is to make the seemingly intractable mental health care system more navigable.

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