Sep 21, 2022 - News

Georgia's 988's rollout exposes more mental health needs

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Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

When the new national mental health crisis line, 988, launched in mid-July, Georgia saw an expected increase in calls for help. Now, the state needs to allocate more money to support the surge in demand.

Driving the news: Georgia is one of the first states to report preliminary data from 988's first days online. And state officials saw a 14% increase in call, text and chat volume during that time from the year prior, or a total of more than 37,500 calls in 45 days.

Why it matters: The new three-digit national suicide prevention and mental health hotline was designed to make it easier for Americans dealing with a crisis to call or text for help.

Of note: Georgia's existing, 16-year-old crisis number, the Georgia Crisis and Access Line remains operational, but its staff is now answering both 988 and GCAL.

What's happening: According to Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities Commissioner Judy Fitzgerald, they expected an uptick in call volume with the rollout. And they expect the increase to continue.

  • With the new line, the state has seen an increase in the number of "active rescues" per day, or cases that require an EMS or police response. In the first 45 days of 988 Georgia saw 10.5 daily average rescues, versus 8.5 the year prior.
  • About 97% of incoming calls and texts were answered in Georgia, with an average wait time of about 7.4 seconds, the department reports.

The big picture: 988 nationally, which is being led by the Substance Use and Mental Health Administration, has seen a 45% increase in call volume, even without a large-scale marketing campaign.

What she's saying: "I've been in the field for over 25 years. I truly believe that this is the biggest point of transformation in my career," Fitzgerald told Axios of 988.

  • "Because I believe that in Georgia and everywhere, it's really going to expose the level of need for people all around the state."

Zoom in: The highest prevalence of calls per capita during the first 45 days was in Webster County, in southwest Georgia — more than double the rate in Fulton County.

  • Fitzgerald pointed out they had already noticed rural Georgia's suicide rate spike 8.3%, even while more urban areas had been seeing fewer suicides.
  • Secondly, she said the state has worked with the Farm Bureau and the University of Georgia to spread rural awareness about mental health resources, which could also contribute to the prevalence.

Yes, but: The increase in call volume means the state will also need to increase its services for all levels of crisis, including increasing mobile response team bandwidth and the beds and nurses needed to treat some patients.

  • The department secured $20 million from the state and federal governments for its crisis response last year, but it has estimated it needs an additional $283 million annually, plus $150 million in one-time construction costs.

What we're watching: To meet the projected demand, the department expects Georgia needs to double its community crisis bed capacity.

  • Demand for mobile crisis services is expected to increase by as much as 176%.

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org.

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