Georgia’s new 988 mental health crisis hotline is already responsive

State officials say a new mental health crisis hotline shows early signs of promise, as counselors are responding quickly to calls and reaching more Georgians in rural areas.

The new national three-digit number, which is simply 988, is a line for people who are experiencing a mental health or substance abuse crisis. It’s an ambitious project intended to divert these types of calls away from law enforcement. National leaders predict, however, that it will take years to work out the kinks.

Data from the first 45 days show that the 988 calls were answered quickly, in 7.4 seconds on average, according to new numbers from the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities. In those first 45 days, 476 calls resulted in rescues of people whose lives were believed to be in danger.

“We want to make the right investments to be responsive to our families and communities in Georgia,” said Judy Fitzgerald, the DBHDD commissioner, on a call last week previewing some of the initial findings. “We just ask you be patient with us as we try to dig deeper, ... and really get a better understanding of what it’s telling us about how our system is performing.”

Also of note: rural South Georgians were calling in to the hotline at higher rates than their urban counterparts. For example, Webster County residents in rural Southwest Georgia called at twice the rate of Fulton County residents within the first 30 days.

Men also called at higher rates: in all, about 53.6 percent of those who called in the first 30 days.

The state already has a crisis call line: the Georgia Crisis and Access Line. Calls made to 988 are now routed into the existing system, and the state has added staff to keep up with the anticipated demand. So far, the number of calls has increased. The state recorded 37,561 calls, texts, and chats from July 16 to August 29. Over the same time period last year, the state recorded 32,843 calls, texts, and chats.

Of the 37,561 calls, texts, and chats from this past summer, 10,372 of those came from the 988 number. The remainder were people calling from the Georgia Crisis and Access Line.

That said, officials said that the program is very much still in its infancy and that more work needs to be done.

One key area for improvement is making the 988 hotline more accessible to non-native English speakers, said Darlene Lynch, Head of External Relations for The Center for Victims of Torture Georgia. Lynch, whose organization works with refugees and other survivors of torture, said that very few of the community groups she works with are aware of the number’s existence.

Currently, the 988 hotline only has English- and Spanish-speaking counselors, but the state contracts with a translation service to communicate with those people in crisis who speak other languages. In Gwinnett County, the number of people who speak English “less than very well,” is 15.4 percent, she said. In the city of Clarkston, in DeKalb County, that number is 40.9 percent.

Of the people in Georgia who report speaking a language other than English at home, only about half report speaking Spanish. In Gwinnett County, tens of thousands of residents speak an Asian language at home. Earlier this year, the county announced it would translate voting materials into Korean, Vietnamese, Mandarin and Cantonese, in addition to Spanish.

“988 is very much needed in the refugee and immigrant communities,” she said. “But it’s not useful if they can’t be accessed.”

The website is something that DBHDD officials say they are currently expanding access to. They are now working to translate the website and online documents into Spanish, and are seeking input from a workgroup that is focused on the needs of Georgians who are foreign-born.

Ashli Owen-Smith, an associate professor of Health Policy and Behavioral Sciences at Georgia State University, is leading the mental health workgroup that DBHDD officials are participating in.

The workgroup, which consists of community groups, state officials and other academics, is also strategizing ways to increase awareness of the new hotline. One project they’ve drafted is creating a magnet for the 988 number in a wide variety of languages, and the plan is to put stacks of them in businesses, grocery stores, and laundromats. One concern is how to market the number: words like suicide and mental health can be taboo in English, but even more in some other cultures. At the same time, she said, people need to know what the hotline number does.

“There is some concern from some of the community partners about having the word ‘suicide’ on a magnet that people have on their refrigerator, she said. “But that can be a triggering word.”

DBHDD is also working with community groups to make sure that people are receiving services not only with correct translation but that the language a counselor is using is culturally appropriate. In the future, the state will have these groups review the scripts that counselors use to make sure the phrasing is right.

The Georgia Crisis and Access Line, the state’s original mental health hotline that now includes 988, has used the translator service for a while. Andrea Corley, director of the Georgia Crisis and Access line, said it is a 24-hour service, seven days a week.

“If we receive a call from anyone who speaks any other language, we’re able to access that language line,” she said. “They have every language we’ve ever needed to request, and we have had to request a lot in my time here.”

Going forward, Corley said that they are prioritizing recruitment of additional staff members, and making sure the counselors have the emotional support they need.

“We want to continue to bring more staff on our lines as the call volume increases,” she said. “We also are continuing to look at how we can help support our staff working in this type of environment, because the concepts of secondary trauma and burnout are very real.”