When you call 9-8-8 during a mental health crisis, a mobile response team may come to help

Posted at 1:32 PM, Jul 26, 2023
and last updated 2023-07-26 13:32:11-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Behavioral Health Services of Virginia Mobile Crisis Response team works 24 hours a day, seven days a week helping people experiencing a mental health, substance use, or suicide crisis.

The team has been even busier since Virginia, and other states, rolled out the 988 suicide and crisis lifeline last summer.

The team also receives calls for assistance from hospitals, police, and other behavioral health organizations. They also respond to self-referrals or family members seeking help.

"Once we determine that the client needs services, we kind of get out there and assess the situation, deescalate, if need be, and then we determine if you need to step down to a lower level of care," Nakeema Patrick, clinical director for Behavioral Health Services of Virginia, said. "That can look like a variety of different things. That can look like outpatient therapy, mental health skills building services, or it could be a higher level of care. It could be that the client does need hospitalization and there’s no way we can give them the help and care they need.”

The Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services is working closely with mobile crisis units across the states.

There are currently five call centers in Virginia staffed with its own mobile units. The department also works with several private providers, like Behavioral Health Services of Virginia. Mental Health advocates say the need for services continues to be great.

“It’s a civic responsibility to make sure the services that every Virginian deserves are available and it’s been a tremendously difficult few years for sure," Assistant Commissioner for Crisis Services Curt Gleeson said.

In the year since the 9-8-8 hotline launched last July, call volume has increased by 40%.

"It’s meant that more than 5 million people have been able to connect to a crisis counselor in their moment of need to get the services and support that 988 offers," said Hannah Wesolowski, the director of field advocacy at the National Alliance on Mental Illness. (NAMI) "That saves lives."

Wesolowski said even more lives could be saved if more people knew about the hotline. New promotional materials, being launched this year, are expected to help in building awareness.

A recent NAMI poll found 82% of Americans were still not familiar with the 988 hotline.

Another challenging issue is the lack of mental health care workers available to assist with follow-up or stabilization services after callers speak to a trained counselor on the hotline.

While Virginia is ahead of the curve nationwide and is a leader in funding services like 988, the Virginia General Assembly has been unable to finalize a state budget. That has tied up funding, including millions for mental health care that would go toward longer-term stabilization services.

Patrick said that funding could go toward recruiting and training more resources, like mobile response teams.

“I think funding would greatly help with that,” Patrick says. “The education piece but actually having staff and boots on the ground to actually do the work.”

And with the demand for 988 anticipated to increase by 50% as more people become aware of the lifesaving resource, healthcare advocates say now is the time to act.

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