Study shows 911 call centers lack resources to handle mental health crises


A study shows most states are not ready to make the transition to a national 988 call system for behavioral health emergencies.

The new three-digit number was authorized by federal law in 2020, one year after a Federal Communications Commission report suggested it as an easy-to-remember shortcut to the 10-digit National Suicide Prevention hotline. All phone providers must be able to connect 988 callers to the hotline by July 16, 2022.

The Pew Charitable Trusts study found that few emergency call centers have staff with behavioral health crisis training.

Kent McKenzie, director of emergency communications in Lake County, said the extent of training in the field is inconsistent.

“We see some that are providing a great deal of training for telecommunicators, call takers and their centers, and then others that just don’t have the resources to provide much training at all,” McKenzie said.

The study found that some of the barriers preventing 911 staff from being trained in mental health crisis response are a lack of staffing and time constraints because the training takes about 40 hours and a lack of funding.

Most of the call centers had crisis intervention-trained law enforcement officers available to send out to at last some of the calls, but fewer than half said their areas have mobile crisis response teams. Those include police officers, social workers and other field responders.

Seven of the 37 911 call centers in the study indicated they didn’t have or weren’t aware of Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) dispatchers, call-takers, law enforcement officers and EMTs, and didn’t have or weren’t aware of the availability of mobile crisis teams or other field response options.

In Illinois, a new law aims to ensure that whatever number is called, 911 or 988, and wherever the call gets made, the emergency will get the appropriate response. Whenever possible, individuals in crisis will be connected to local services, rather than be hospitalized or incarcerated.

“Fundamentally, my hope is that all mental health crises are met with the services that are needed,” said the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago.

The Illinois Department of Public Health is convening a group of leaders from the state’s current crisis call centers and mental health providers to plan for the 988 implementation.

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