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NC on track to roll out 9-8-8 mental health crisis hotline

The hotline offers people experiencing mental distress a different option that is not routed through law enforcement.

by Taylor Knopf North Carolina Health News

Gov. Roy Cooper and health Sec. Kody Kinsley attend a ribbon cutting for new mobile crisis units in the eastern part of the state. Photo credit: NC Department of Health and Human Services

In July, there will be a new universal phone number — 9-8-8 — for people across the United States to call when they or someone around them experiences a mental health crisis. The idea is that it’s short, easy to remember and the same everywhere.

Right now, most everyone knows to call 9-1-1 in an emergency. But law enforcement and emergency responders are not always equipped to help someone who is in mental health distress or having a psychotic episode or thinking about suicide.

People with mental health issues are 16 times more likely to be killed by police, according to a 2015 report from the Treatment Advocacy Center. On top of that, people of color are killed by law enforcement at much higher rates than white people, according to a Washington Post database of all fatal police shootings.

Police involvement in connecting people to mental health care is stigmatizing and can deter people from getting help in the future. However, NC Health News found that when given a chance to rethink law enforcement involvement in mental health crisis care in 2019, most North Carolina counties maintained the status quo.

The 9-8-8 mental health crisis number is designed to give people a different option that isn’t routed through law enforcement.

Ready to launch?

Congress passed the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020 which created the 9-8-8 hotline. It’s supposed to launch nationwide in July, but most states do not have a legislative plan for the rollout of the service.

North Carolina, on the other hand, is ready and on track for the July launch date, according to Deepa Avula, director for the NC Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Use Services.

“I was involved very heavily in the implementation on the front end of 9-8-8. So I know where North Carolina is relative to other states, and North Carolina’s Crisis Response Suicide Lifeline response is very, very strong compared to others,” said Avula who worked for 20 years at the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration prior to her current role.

Readers may also be familiar with the Hope4NC helpline, which can be reached at 855-587-3463. It was created as a natural disaster relief line in North Carolina after Hurricane Florence, Avula explained, and is scaled up or down as needed.

That line is different and will remain separate and accessible even after the launch of the 9-8-8 mental health hotline, she said.

How it works

Right now, North Carolina already participates in the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — 800-273-TALK. When someone calls that number, they are routed to their local crisis center, Avula explained. Starting in July, that same crisis line will be reachable by dialing 9-8-8.

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