Guest Commentary: It’s easy and inexpensive to fund mental health hotline

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Dr. Joshua Thomas is the CEO/executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Delaware, which was founded 40 years ago by Simon and Jill Shute and a group of families desperate for support for their loved ones.

Sometimes, it’s just so painless — and inexpensive — to do the right thing.

For less than 2 cents a day, 60 cents a month, $7.20 a year, Delawareans can pay for the 988 mental health crisis hotline system.

Such a small price for Delaware’s mental health.

In the last week of session for the Delaware General Assembly, House Substitute 2 for House Bill 160 — sponsored by House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, and Sen. Nicole Poore, D-New Castle — to establish a funding source for the state’s 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, is being considered.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness Delaware heartily supports this important measure and urges all lawmakers to vote for its passage. The 988 number is a vital lifeline in mental health crises.

Federal legislation

Three years ago, Congress passed the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act, requiring a new, universal three-digit calling code for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, similar to 911 for public safety emergencies.

State and local governments were responsible for implementing the 988 system, which opened in July 2022. Congress allowed states to assess a fee on phone bills to recover the costs of 988 and crisis services.

The Delaware legislation, HS 2 for HB 160, would add a 60-cent monthly surcharge on each wireless access line, charge a one-time 60-cent fee on prepaid services, establish a fund for the surcharge and create a board of agencies and nonprofits, including NAMI, to report on the state’s crisis intervention services.

Delaware’s crisis lines now handle about 25,000 contacts, though those numbers could grow with an increased need for behavioral health services.

Crisis intervention

HB 160 calls for funds from the surcharge to be used to operate the 988 system and provide crisis intervention and staffing. Unspent money would revert to the fund each year and could not be used for general state expenses.

Establishing a small monthly charge will improve mental health services in the state with the goal of offering top-notch care to people reaching out in times of crisis. The surcharge will be painless because it’s included in monthly phone bills. We won’t miss those 60 cents.

The fee would be a bargain compared with surrounding states based on their 911 charges. Delawareans pay 60 cents a month for the 911 system. The monthly 911 fee in New Jersey is 90 cents and rises to $1.25 in Maryland, while Pennsylvanians pay $1.65.

Sixty cents. A pittance for Delaware’s mental health.

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