Cape Charles, Virginia — The national mental health crisis hotline, 988, hailed as a lifeline for individuals in need of immediate mental health support, has been met with widespread approval. However, a concerning trend has emerged: most states have yet to establish permanent funding for this critical service.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) designated 988 as the three-digit number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in July 2020, with the aim of simplifying access to mental health crisis services. Since then, the hotline has provided vital assistance to thousands of individuals grappling with mental health challenges.
Despite the crucial role 988 plays in crisis response, only a handful of states have taken concrete steps towards ensuring its sustainable funding. As of our last update, the majority of states are still relying on temporary funding solutions, posing a significant threat to the hotline’s long-term viability.
This funding gap raises concerns about the ability to meet the escalating demand for mental health services. Mental health experts and advocates have long emphasized the need for readily available, accessible, and permanently funded resources to address the nation’s growing mental health crisis.
Over the past two years, the federal government has provided about $1 billion from the American Rescue Plan and Bipartisan Safer Communities acts to launch the number, designed as an alternative to 911 for those experiencing a mental health crisis. After that infusion runs out, it’s up to states to foot the bill for their call centers.
“We don’t know what Congress will allocate in the future,” said Danielle Bennett, a spokesperson for the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which oversees 988. “But the hope is that there will be continued strong bipartisan support for funding 988 at the level it needs to be funded at and that states will also create funding mechanisms that make sense for their states.”
Temporary funding sources for 988, which vary from state to state, often depend on revenue from taxes or fees related to telecommunication services. These sources are subject to fluctuations and may not provide a sustainable funding base in the long run.
Advocacy groups and lawmakers have been pressing for comprehensive legislation to address this issue at the state level. These efforts aim to establish a dedicated funding mechanism for 988, ensuring that it remains a reliable resource for individuals facing mental health crises.
Only eight states have enacted legislation to sustain 988 through phone fees, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which is tracking state funding for the system. Others have budgeted short-term funding. But many predominantly rural states, where mental health services are in short supply and suicide rates are often higher than in more urban states, have not made long-term plans to provide support.
According to a KFF analysis of Lifeline data, since last summer 988 has received almost 5 million contacts, including calls, texts, and chat messages. And state programs managed to answer a high percentage of 988 calls instead of routing them to call centers elsewhere.
Mental health advocates and state 988 operators say that to keep those in-state staffers answering phones, promises of long-term funding are critical.
In the earlier version of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, “call centers, basically, were not paid,” said Chuck Ingoglia, president and CEO of the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, which advocates for sustained investment in 988. “There is a growing recognition that we’re making it easier for people to contact and, therefore, we need to build more infrastructure.”
The mental health crisis hotline 988 stands as a beacon of hope for those in their darkest hours, offering immediate assistance and support. Its effectiveness in preventing tragedies hinges on securing permanent funding commitments from states across the nation.
As the mental health crisis continues to impact individuals and communities, advocates, healthcare professionals, and policymakers emphasize the urgency of addressing this funding shortfall. The goal is clear: to ensure that the lifeline represented by 988 remains accessible and dependable for all who require it, regardless of where they reside.