New Yorkers hope 988 launch is start to better mental health response

The 988 national suicide hotline will officially launch Saturday. People experiencing a mental health crisis can call or text the three-digit number, 988, to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Trained mental health professionals will be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to provide free and confidential emotional support to those in distress.

Officials say it’s crucial as suicide and mental health issues increase.

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NewsChannel 13 spoke with several people involved in New York’s launch of the new number. They’re calling it a soft launch.

The vision for 988 is that it will eventually be a 911 for mental health crises, to take that burden off police and get people living with mental illness out of jails and into treatment.

A mother in the Capital Region who knows what it’s like to try to get someone help in a mental health crisis, is part of the coalition overseeing the rollout.

Sharon Horton’s son lives with Bipolar Disorder type one Schizoaffective. She says his illness started getting him in trouble with police from a young age.

“We’ve had many interactions within the criminal justice system and within the mental health system as well,” said Horton, who also serves on the board of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Capital Region.

She says it’s hard to think about what’s happened when police have gotten involved during her son’s manic episodes, the latest in 2020.

“Nobody wants to walk in on a scene and watch their child screaming in pain and handcuffs and tasers and 10 police surrounding him and holding him down, face down in the rocks,” she said.

Those experiences lit a fire under Horton.

“I just felt the fire to get up and stand up and start using my voice,” she said.

Now she helps train local police departments to understand people in crisis, telling them her story.

“I think our system is broken and I think law enforcement has not been trained properly up to this point. They’ve been trained in restraint. It’s not the officers’ fault, I get it,” she said.

She says proper training could be life or death.

“People die every day because of these situations, because they’re misunderstood,” Horton said.

988 promises to bring a different approach. The goal is for it to eventually be 911, for your mental health.

“I’m advocating for improvement and I hope that this crisis response system will take it to new levels. I want to be a part of that change in my son’s lifetime so that he can look back and say, this is better,” she said.

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The hotline is not there yet. Wendy Burch is the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in New York. She’s part of the group overseeing the state’s 988 rollout.

“I do think that New York is kind of taking a careful approach to assess what the call volume is like so they know where they’re going to have to direct resources going forward,” Burch said.

Horton says her son is doing well now, and about to turn 31. She says with the right help, he’s made a lot of progress since those encounters with police.

More than two dozen states haven’t passed legislation to fund 988, according to research.

Gov. Kathy Hochul is calling New York’s implementation ‘successful’ — $35 million in the state budget will increase the number of calls they can respond to. 

The Office of Mental Health says most of the call centers in New York are operated by Vibrant Emotional Health. OMH says the company is opening one in the Capital Region soon. If you call from the Capital Region, Contact Community Services in Syracuse will answer.

The goal is that one day, there will be geolocation, and staff to dispatch, much like 911, but for mental health.

“I’ve seen so many law enforcement officers who have really done an amazing job at de-escalating situations but at the same time being able to provide that additional resource so that they can hand it off to someone, a mental health professional, would just, it would be a game-changer,” said Burch.

If you have an emergency, you should still call 911. For now, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is 1-800-273-8255.