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988 will be the '911' for mental health/addiction crisis calls. Georgia preps for the extra load - GPB News

A federal act creating a mental health emergency number, 988, passed recently with a July 2022 deadline for launch. But Georgia, with its existing statewide mental health hotline, is already a few steps ahead. GPB’s Ellen Eldridge has more.

When people think about calling 911 in an emergency, they’re usually thinking about getting help — and fast.

That means call centers need people to answer calls and dispatch police, fire or ambulance.

But for people in active mental health crises and those calling for help, it’s tough to remember Georgia’s current 10-digit number: 1-800-715-4225.

Next year, Georgia will join the nation in using a single three-digit hotline: 988 is meant to be the "911" of behavioral health, said Judy Fitzgerald, the commissioner of the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.

Establishing 988 for suicide prevention and mental health crisis services will make it easier for Georgians in crisis to access the help they need and decrease the stigma surrounding suicide and mental health.

As states are scrambling to be ready for 988 to go live July 16, 2022, Fitzgerald's department is leading Georgia's planning process.

"This is probably one of the largest and most transformative initiatives that I'm going to experience in my lifetime in behavioral health," she said.

The easy-to-remember number is expected to increase demand on the crisis system twofold. But Georgia has taken steps to be ready.

Georgia’s General Assembly approved $114,039 for 988 support in March, a year and a half ahead of the federal deadline for the number to go live.

Additionally, the state allocated in its budget $86,602 for a youth suicide specialist; $107,748 for a suicide epidemiologist; $12,900 for suicide prevention training in school systems; and $70,000 in funding for suicide prevention for issues related to COVID-19.

The state's also ahead of the game with its existing dedicated crisis line, the Georgia Crisis and Access Line, known as GCAL.

Twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year, Georgians in crisis can call for help — not 911 for the police or fire officials, but the Georgia Crisis and Access Line for help in mental health and substance use disorder crises.

"If people call right now the National Suicide Prevention Hotline from Georgia, those calls already come to GCAL," Fitzgerald said.

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Georgia has a plan in place to send help, too, because while a person in crisis sometimes simply needs someone to listen, other times, they will need a place to go.

"The more we know about who the people are, where they're calling from and what's available in their local community and exactly where they are, and we can get to them that second category, right?" Fitzgerald said. "I said first someone to talk to (and) second, someone to go."

About 10% of calls to GCAL end with the person in crisis being taken to a mental health facility for their safety, Fitzgerald said.

Calling 911 after a loved one attempts suicide does not mean trained mental health specialists will respond, Cobb County's 911 call center operations manager, Kathy Strickland, said. It's also tough to quickly determine if a person has autism or struggles with communicating the extent of their mental anguish.

"We send fire and we send police because we don't know if they're having a mental episode," Strickland said. "We don't know if they're having an issue with a situation that's going on at home. We don't know what the case is."

That has, at times, proven deadly when police respond with force.

The DBHDD has a planning committee to ensure all stakeholders are involved with the planning process.

"We've got law enforcement representation, we've got health care representation and really importantly, 911 is at the table with us as well," Fitzgerald said.

The DBHDD estimates the new 988 number will at least double calls to GCAL in the first year, and those stakeholders have real logistical challenges ahead.

Kelli Miller, a mother who lives in Cherokee County, said when her son had a breathing emergency, she dialed 911 from her home driveway, but the cellphone call routed to a neighboring county.

"I thought they automatically knew where I was and could pin my location, and I was so frantic at the moment the operator kept asking me what my location was, but I really wasn't paying attention," Miller said. "And I believe like the third or fourth time she said it, it dawned on me that I was calling from the cellphone and not the landline that I had reserved for this purpose."

That meant precious minutes were lost even when Miller dialed the number we all know by heart — 911.

Consider, now, how 988 will confuse an emergency situation when frantic people forget not only where they are but also which three-digit number to call.

That’s why explaining what the new 988 number is for is one of the next steps in Georgia’s rollout.

If you or someone you love is experiencing a mental health emergency, call Georgia’s current Crisis Access Line at 1-800-715-4225.