People in mental health crisis need healthcare pros, not cops

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I urge all communities, especially Black communities, to use 988

Before 911 was implemented, people needing help dialed local 10-digit phone numbers to reach police, fire or emergency services. Emergency medical responses were not widespread or commonly available. 

In many communities of color, transportation for emergency services was provided by funeral home staff. Following a report calling for action to reduce the number of deaths and injuries nationwide to request an ambulance, 911 was implemented. The first call to 911 was placed in February 1968. 

In 1973, a new law, the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Act of 1973, strengthened emergency services. The Act was part of the Public Health Services Act providing federal guidelines and over $300 million in funding to develop regional EMS systems across the United States. 

This law included a newly designed, single, nationwide telephone number to summon an ambulance—911. Its implementation and nationwide use occurred over many decades. In fact, it would be a rare individual who did not know to call 911 when a person is experiencing a medical emergency, including a mental health crisis, to activate emergency medical services.

While 911 is an invaluable service, when people experiencing a mental health crisis activate emergency services, it is armed law enforcement who respond, not healthcare professionals. This practice contrasts with the response to a physical health emergency. 

Many officers are well trained and recognize people in a mental health crisis may not be able to respond to even simple directives, but many lack the skills and patience required to provide assistance to those who are severely depressed, psychotic, suicidal, or acting bizarrely, creating a potentially high-risk scenario for a fatal encounter. 

Data collected by the Washington Post found that 1,000 people are shot and killed by the police each year, and Black men are more than twice as likely to be victims as White men. One in four fatal police shootings between 2015 and 2022 involved people with untreated mental illness. 

In addition, police are more likely to shoot and kill unarmed Black men who exhibit signs of mental illness compared to White men with similar behaviors. An estimated 44% of people in jail and 37% of people in prison have a mental health condition. 

It is vital that fewer armed police officers respond to mental health emergencies. Recently, there was a big step towards improving the safety of those experiencing a mental health crisis. On July 16, 2022, a new three-digit daily code, 988, went live. 

988, like 911, is a newly designed, single, nationwide number that routes callers to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. A call to 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline will activate mental health crisis teams, not armed laws enforcement officers. It is available to everyone. 

I urge all communities, especially Black communities, to use 988. If armed police are no longer the default responder, the number of fatal encounters of police interacting with individuals who have an untreated mental illness or are experiencing a mental health crisis will decline. 

If individuals experiencing a mental health crisis are no longer restrained and placed into the back of a squad car, their risk of diversion from a healthcare facility to a correctional facility will decrease. All these factors will improve the health and welfare of Black communities and decrease the criminalization of mental illness.


How does 988 work?

If you or a loved one is experiencing a mental health crisis, call or text 988. After accepting the Terms of Service and replying “Yes” to connect, you will be able to text with a counselor.

A veteran or military services member may text the Veterans Crisis Line at 838255.

For voice calls:

  • If the caller does not press a prompt, the call is routed to a local crisis center.
  • Press “1” to be routed to the Veterans Crisis Line.
  • Press “2” to be routed to the Spanish sub-network.
  • Press “3” to be routed to LGBTAI+ youth services.
  • If the local call center is unable to answer, the call is routed to the national backup network. 

Dr. Dionne Hart is board-certified in psychiatry and addiction medicine. She is an adjunct assistant professor of psychiatry at Mayo Clinic. In 2014, Dr. Hart was named Minnesota Psychiatrist of the Year. In 2017, she received the National Alliance on Mental Illness Exemplary Psychiatrist Award.

Dr. Hart is an American Psychiatric Association delegate to the American Medical Association and a member of the Minnesota Medical Association’s (NMA) Board of Trustees. Dr. Hart is the Region 4 chairperson of the NMA’s Board of Trustees and the president of the Minnesota Association of African American Physicians. In 2020, Minnesota Physician journal named her one of the 100 most influential healthcare leaders in Minnesota. Twitter/Instagram: @lildocd

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