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Two years in, evaluating 988 in WI, other states

Modern computer with headset indoors. Hotline service
Olga Yastremska, New Africa, Afr/New Africa - stock.adobe.com
Modern computer with headset indoors. Hotline service

A new report examined the rollout of the 988 mental-health crisis line in each state, including Wisconsin.

The revamped National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is nearing its second anniversary. While the report from the mental health advocacy organization Inseparable said progress is needed, it noted the change was a critical step toward providing better care.

For Wisconsin's operation, the findings show the call answer rate is 77%, below the desired level of 90%.

Abigail Spanjers, executive director of the La Crosse Lighthouse Peer Run Respite and Warmline, said for the broader service, she'd like to see more trauma-informed training.

"988 is a good overall resource for individuals," Spanjers noted. "However, we find that people are frequently put in a position where they have to navigate those calls differently, because if they come up with a 'trigger word,' it could end up triggering a wellness check."

She pointed out in some cases, the caller is simply looking for someone to talk with. In financing state-level systems, the report credited Wisconsin for having an enhanced Medicaid match for mobile response but it called on the Badger State to join others in adopting a telecom fee to help ensure more stable funding.

The report's authors said the overall goal is to reduce the effects of "deficient" crisis response. Since
2015, almost one in five fatal police shootings involved a person experiencing a mental health emergency.

Angela Kimball, chief advocacy officer for Inseparable, said too often, there is a tragic outcome when people cannot get the necessary help.

"At a less severe level, we see a lot of people who end up in crowded emergency departments," Kimball observed. "Frankly, emergency departments are getting so filled up with people with severe mental health challenges that they're experiencing something called 'ED boarding.'"

ED boarding refers to holding people in the emergency room as they await services. Meanwhile, the report found nationally, more than 80% of calls to 988 are resolved over the phone and for those who require mobile response teams, 70% are resolved in the field.

Mike Moen is a radio news reporter with nearly two decades of experience in the field. He has covered much of the upper Midwest, including Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin and the Dakotas. Many of his stories have aired nationally, including several public radio programs.
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