Every year, millions of mental health emergency calls are made to 911 and other crisis lines. But unfortunately, when in-person help is needed, often the only response available is law enforcement — not a mental health professional.
Law enforcement response to mental health crises often includes law enforcement tools like handcuffs, resulting in the criminalization of mental illness.
People in crisis face avoidable trauma and tragedy. Psychiatric Services reports that people with mental illness are booked into U.S. jails about 2 million times annually, often for just exhibiting symptoms of their health condition. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says more than 45,800 people in the U.S. died by suicide in 2020. In 2021 in Delaware, 1,165 people experienced homelessness, 447 lives were lost from drug overdose and 113 lives were lost to suicide.
This is unacceptable.
A mental health crisis deserves a mental health response. Timely, appropriate response can get people on the road to recovery, divert them from unnecessary criminal justice involvement and free up law enforcement to do the job they signed up to do.
People in crisis deserve help and hope — not handcuffs.
Two years ago, Congress passed bipartisan legislation to designate 988 as the new universal three-digit number for mental health, substance use and suicidal crises.
Available nationwide by July 2022, 988 by phone, text or chat will provide response from well-trained personnel who can de-escalate situations, provide mental health intervention and connect people to appropriate community resources.
But Delaware isn’t ready yet. In most Delaware communities, the complete 988 system is unavailable. For effective 988 response by July 2022, Delaware needs to work quickly to ensure there are effective 24/7 crisis call centers, highly skilled mobile crisis teams and well-managed crisis-stabilization systems in all three counties.
After the system becomes available, when a Delawarean dials 988, they should receive a response — 24/7 — by local, Delaware crisis call center professionals with experience responding to a range of mental health, substance use and suicidal crises.
Delaware needs to increase resources to ensure these centers have the capacity to respond to calls, chats and texts locally with multilingual staff able to connect people to community services and schedule appointments with local care providers.
For those who need more support than can be offered by phone, mobile crisis teams would respond on-site and de-escalate the crisis. If needed, the teams would also transport people safely to community care or crisis stabilization — not emergency rooms — without relying on law enforcement.
Well-trained police and communications personnel would collaborate with mobile crisis teams, but law enforcement would only co-respond in high-risk situations.
Delaware needs to prepare for this lifesaving system statewide by passing legislation that sets requirements for 988 call centers and crisis-response services; by creating oversight of the system; and by paying for it.
The national legislation provided a way to pay for 988 with monthly fees on telephone bills. This is not new: It’s similar to how we fund 911. The National Emergency Number Association says the average wireless 911 fee is about 72 cents.
Delaware policymakers should act now, before 988 “goes live” in July, to ensure statewide capacity for responding to mental health, substance use or suicidal crises.
By building and providing comprehensive crisis services in Delaware, we can end the revolving door of ER visits, arrests, incarceration and homelessness — and ensure that every Delawarean in mental health crisis receives an appropriate mental health response and is treated with respect and dignity.
After over two decades in law enforcement, Dr. Joshua Thomas brought his specialized experience in crisis intervention and mental health to his role as CEO/executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Delaware. Annie Slease, director of advocacy and education, joined the NAMI Delaware staff after 25 years in the classroom, inspired by her experience as a parent navigating the mental health and criminal justice systems.