July 16, 2022 — that was the date that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) required 988 to be active across the United States. 988 is a single, nationwide three-digit hotline to connect people with the National Suicide Prevention Line (NSPL). The vision is to make the hotline available via phone, text and chat — simplifying and expanding access to suicide prevention and behavioral health crisis support services.

For now, the key goal of the 988 initiative is answering calls, chats and texts. Meeting that goal requires two things:  1) functional technology to match callers with providers and 2) adequate staff in crisis centers to communicate with constituents who need help.

Establishing 988 is a great first step to improving mental health service delivery, especially during crisis situations. However, it is just the beginning of any journey to recovery and stability. Guiding individuals to the right behavioral health services throughout that journey requires us orchestration of people, processes and technology. 

To facilitate that level of service, the FCC recommends that states create an “air traffic control” model. With this approach, behavioral healthcare, including 988 crisis support, is centralized and coordinated locally while integrating with Vibrant’s Unified Platform, part of the national infrastructure. We see value in this model. It gives states overall control of the intake and referral processes and enables them to structure an enterprise solution that can expand over time to drive continued care. 

Here are some short-term, midterm, and longer-term actions that can greatly improve the use of technology to support behavioral health crises and continuum of care. 

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In the short term, leverage technology to create capacity for improving behavioral health service delivery.

The purpose of the 988 hotline is to increase access to behavioral health support — leading to a rise in call volumes. This greater demand requires states to ramp up the level of resources available to respond to citizen need. Not every call to 988 will be from or about a person who is imminently suicidal. A significant number of callers can benefit from simply talking with a compassionate individual — or having easy access to the information they need for themselves or their loved one.

Consider peer warmlines
If states have barriers to increasing crisis center staffing, we recommend leveraging peer warmline services to support non-crisis callers. Warmlines can put callers in touch with volunteers who can provide compassion conversation or even share their lived experience. Warmlines also direct callers to the right places for help, reducing workload on 988 centers.

Evaluate AI technology for non-crisis Q&A
Another option is to leverage artificial intelligence (AI) to support callers who are simply seeking information. A conversational AI module can answer questions about available services without a worker intervening. Some callers may even prefer conversational AI for their first interaction with behavioral health services.

Leverage call center technology
You can use cloud-based technology to provide critical linkages between the hotline, peer warmlines and other community resources. Cloud-based platform tools make it easy to stand up a command center in a matter of weeks, not months or years. To enhance the quality of peer support, organizations can use tools like the AI-powered Agent Assist, which “listens in” to calls, detecting caller sentiment and keywords. Based on these inputs, Agent Assist automatically pulls up relevant information for the volunteer.  

In the midterm, solidify your vision and build the foundation.

Think about an individual with a substance use disorder who is having suicidal thoughts. Being able to talk with someone may indeed be critical in the moment. But it’s even more important that the caller gets substance abuse treatment to address the underlying issue.

To provide that kind of comprehensive support, you need a system that can direct callers to the right resources. In some crisis centers, today’s “system” is a series of sticky notes at individual workstations or a reliance on web searches to locate services. Neither is an effective way to guide vulnerable people to appropriate behavioral health services.

A better alternative is a platform that serves up accurate information about community resources. It should dynamically display current availability, particularly for callers seeking inpatient beds. And it should provide a mechanism for following up and tracking outcomes for people in crisis.

As you work to increase resource capacity and connect multiple channels, keep your eye on the opportunity to create that kind of air traffic control capability. Begin laying the foundation — including planning the funding, initiating the procurement process and architecting a technology solution. At the same time, engage key stakeholders. Gather their input and gain their support. And start lobbying for state legislation to support the more comprehensive approach.

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As you work to increase capacity and connect multiple channels, keep your eye on the longer-term opportunity to create that “air traffic control” tower in your state.

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In the longer term, pursue your vision for true coordination of behavioral  health care.

Investing in technology not only helps increase capacity; it also provides significant flexibility in connecting with other stakeholders in the behavioral health ecosystem. For example, a robust referral system connects you to the web of existing services and providers, which begins to build out a continuum of care for constituents who need it. You can also add features that provide counselors with information to help them address each person’s need.

What’s more, technology can play a big role in offering visibility into other benefit programs — including healthcare, food, housing and other forms of assistance. These pieces of information may be critical to stabilizing an individual experiencing a behavioral health crisis.

As you address your immediate needs related to 988 — whether that’s finding more capacity or integrating more service channels — consider how you can advance toward the air traffic control model. Realizing the vision won’t happen overnight, but it’s a compelling goal to pursue.

How is your state working to make the most of 988? Let’s connect via LinkedIn and continue the conversation.

Read another blog by Pawel:
Dial 988 to find mental health services

This content is provided for general information purposes and is not intended to be used in place of consultation with our professional advisorsThis document refers to marks owned by third parties. All such third-party marks are the property of their respective owners. No sponsorship, endorsement or approval of this content by the owners of such marks is intended, expressed or implied.

Pawel Walczuk

Senior Manager – Public Service, Behavioral Health Lead, North America

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