Health officials combat 9-8-8 mental health hotline fears

MADISON, Wis. — The new 9-8-8 Mental Health Crisis Hotline launched just over a week ago and has already seen a 45% increase in calls nationwide compared to the week before the launch.

The new number runs on the same system as the old 1-800-273-TALK suicide hotline but was transitioned in an effort to make it easier to remember. The number is now also available for anyone experiencing any type of mental health crisis, not just suicidal thoughts. People looking for help can also now text or chat online with counselors.

But although the launch of 9-8-8 has seemingly been successful, some viral social media posts have questioned the safety of using the hotline over concerns that it could lead to police involvement or involuntary medical treatment.

One viral post titled “988 is not friendly” warns that the risks of using 9-8-8 could include “police involvement, humiliating involuntary treatment at emergency rooms and psych hospitals, use of medical violence to punish ‘uncooperative’ or distressed patients, forced drugging, crushing medical debt, and life-altering trauma.”

Caroline Crehan Neumann, the Crisis Services Coordinator at the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, says she understands why people might be hesitant to use the new hotline, but there’s no reason to be.

“It’s understandable that people would be nervous about calling and reaching out to a service for something so vulnerable as their mental health, I think we all feel that way, but the service is here to help people,” said Crehan Neumann.

Although it is possible that a call to 9-8-8 could result in police intervention, Crehan Neumann says it’s unlikely, and dispatching law enforcement is a last resort.

“These instances are really rare and they are the last absolute outcome anyone is hoping for, but it is the duty of mental health professionals and of law enforcement to ensure that piece of public safety of people staying alive and receiving support,” said Crehan Neumann.

According to her, only 2% of Wisconsin 9-8-8 calls end in a police response, and when they do, it’s because the caller is at an imminent risk of hurting themselves or others.

“These are people who are making statements that include, ‘I am going to die tonight. I’m going to use this type of means. This is how I’m going to do it,’” said Crehan Neumann. “These are blatant statements where that person is at imminent risk.”

She says the vast majority of callers don’t fit into this category and can be helped over the phone or over text or chat by counselors who are trained in how to handle difficult mental health crises.

“Those counselors are ready and open arms for statements like that. If you say, ‘There’s no hope. My life is so hard right now. The last couple years have been so hard. I’m so depressed I can’t get out of bed,’ the police are not coming to your door,” said Crehan Neumann.

Executive Director of Wisconsin’s National Alliance for Mental Illness, Mary Kay Battaglia, says 9-8-8 was actually designed as an alternative to police involvement.

“The whole idea of 9-8-8 is that immediately the person on the other line is a trained counselor who knows this is a mental health crisis,” said Battaglia. “We want to divert the process of having to call a police officer or receiving a police officer to your home when you’re in a mental health crisis.”

And in the rare cases when an in-person response is needed, it’s not always the police who respond. Growing numbers of mental health response teams across the state, like the CARES teams in Madison, are also able to respond to calls.

RELATED: Madison adds second response team, second station for CARES team

“No one wants to have the police come to their door, but we often need to take care of people when they’re in a mental health crisis and provide a response,” said Battaglia. “The whole idea of 9-8-8 is to take it out of the legal, law enforcement area and put it more in a medical focus. It is a health response, not a law enforcement response.”

Bottom line, Battaglia says she wants people to get help.

“Let’s not wait until it’s a crisis,” says Battaglia. “If you’re nervous to use the system and you’re not in a state of harming yourself or others, there are other avenues.”

That includes “warmlines,” or phone and text lines staffed by trained peers who are in mental health recovery and can be an ear for anyone who needs it. Battaglia says warmlines are not meant for those who need immediate help with a mental health crisis, but rather those who just need someone to talk to. Many, including the top three on the list below, have policies that prevent call takers from sending police or other first responders. Wisconsin does not currently have an official state warmline, but there are Wisconsin-based lines that you can call:

  • 608-244-5077 (Operated by Solstice House Peer-Run Respite)
  • 608-519-1489 (Operated by the La Crosse Lighthouse Peer-Run Respite)
  • 715-505-5641 (Operated by Monarch House Peer-Run Respite)
  • 920-815-3217 (Operated by Iris Place Peer-Run Respite)
  • 414-877-5918 (Operated by Parachute House Peer-Run Respite)
  • Available to all state veterans
    • 262-336-9540 (Operated by The R&R House Peer-Run Respite)
  • Available to residents of Milwaukee County
    • 414-777-4729 (Operated by Warmline, Inc.)

You can also reach out to a trusted friend or family member or a mental health professional for help.

The 9-8-8 hotline is available by phone, text or online chat. If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental health crisis, don’t hesitate to use the new number.

*Editor’s note: We initially labeled the viral post referred to in this story as misinformation. After further consideration and discussion with the author of the post, we feel that characterization was unfair. The post stated that calls to 9-8-8 run the risk of involuntary contact with police or medical professionals, which could end in unwanted outcomes. Data from the Wisconsin Department of Health shows two percent of calls end in police contact. We could not find data on how many of these interactions are involuntary or end in unwanted outcomes. Because of that possibility, we have removed all labels of misinformation in this story. We regret the characterization.