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As Mental Health Workers Respond To More Crises, 988 Not Well Known

People experiencing mental or behavioral health crises and addiction often have been subject to police use of force, arrest and incarceration. One of the most common new approaches is civilian co-responder programs, in which behavioral health specialists, often social workers, show up to certain emergency calls alongside police, according to The Marshall Project. These can include situations like suicide threats, drug overdoses, and psychiatric episodes. These programs are often popular with law enforcement, while critics argue that they don’t do enough to remove police from the situation. Generally, these teams aim to de-escalate any crisis or conflict, avoiding arrest and solving the reason for the emergency call, especially if it’s a simple one. Alternative responder programs are closely related strategies in which social workers or behavioral health specialists answer calls instead of police officers. These teams only respond to calls with a low probability of violence, and many engage in proactive work, trying to connect people with behavioral health challenges to services outside the context of a crisis.

A related effort is the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, which the federal government launched in 2022. The program primarily focuses on providing support over the phone and by text but can lead to in-person responses in certain situations. Mental health providers have shown broad approval of 988, and it has strong support from the general public in polling. However, it is not very well known, and according to a RAND Corporation analysis, there are major inefficiencies around how 988 and 911 calls are routed and exchanged. Some activists have raised alarms that the program can still lead to police response in some circumstances, as well as mental health treatment against a person’s will. Several jurisdictions are investing in “Crisis Intervention Centers” on the premise that jails are not designed to resolve behavioral health crises, and emergency rooms aren’t always much better. Other approaches look beyond crises and emergencies and seek to promote non-police responses to chronic, low-level criminal activity (like drug possession, prostitution and petty theft) that stems from unmet behavioral health needs or poverty.

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