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9-8-8 crisis call line logs high use in first weeks

ATLANTA — While data collection is still in the early stages, the 9-8-8 Georgia Steering Committee informed the public of trends seen in the first 45 days of the program’s rollout at a Sept. 7 webinar.

“Just over 50 days ago we took the first steps down a long road towards transforming Georgia’s crisis system and making it easy for those experiencing a behavioral health crisis to know who to call in an emergency,” said Judy Fitzgerald, Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD) commissioner.

In 2020, Congress designated the new 9-8-8 dialing code to be operated through the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Beginning July 16 of this year, individuals in crisis could call or text 9-8-8 for 24/7 care.

“The similarity to 9-1-1 was a message to everyone, saying the behavioral health crisis needs to be at the forefront here,” Fitzgerald said. “I think that's certainly how we feel it's a game changer for stigma.”

Georgia has been ahead of the curve. Residents have already had the ability to use Mobile Crisis Services by calling the Georgia Crisis & Access Line (GCAL) at 1-800-715-4225. The single-dial call, created over 15 years ago, provides help to those in crisis as well as those seeking information on behavioral health.

The 10-digit number is still operational, but the new three-digit number makes it easier to seek help. Calls are directed to the same Georgia call center.

All 9-8-8 calls are answered by master’s-level behavioral health professionals and are supervised by licensed professionals, DBHDD Director of ASO Coordination Anna Bourque said. All are trained in the Columbia scale, which is a suicide risk assessment, as well as LOCUS (Level of Care Utilization System).

Because of easier access, the feds projected that Georgia’s crisis demand would double in the first year, Fitzgerald said. To mitigate being overwhelmed, the government decided against mass marketing. Instead, 9-8-8 has been targeted toward specific high-risk groups.

With federal cautionary projections, capacity is a concern.

“We’re going to be really thoughtful and strategic about how we’re going to build capacity based on that data,” Fitzgerald said.

Considering the program was implemented only some 50 days ago, findings are preliminary. But, a number of trends have been observed.

Georgia answers to the first goal in SAMHSA’s five-year vision: By 2023 over 90 percent or more of calls would be answered in-state. In the first 45 days, 97 percent of calls were answered in-state.

In that same vision, 80 percent or more of individuals will have access to rapid crisis response by 2025. And, by 2027, 80 percent or more of individuals will have access to community-based crisis care.

Since the rollout, GCAL has received 476 calls that resulted in active rescues for those whose lives were believed to be in danger.

An active rescue is an incident where call agents have a significant enough concern for a person's immediate health and safety that they must engage with the local 911 center to trigger an EMS or police response.

During the first 30 days of the 9-8-8 rollout, about 10 percent of active rescue calls were made by people under age 18.

During the same period, the preliminary data shows that Georgians in rural southern counties reached out for mental health and substance use crisis support at higher rates than their urban counterparts.

For example, residents in Webster County reached out at twice the rate than residents in Fulton County.

9-8-8 rollout

During the first 30 days of the emergency hotline, more than 30 percent of callers were Black/African American, which is the largest identified population by race.

Georgia’s 9-8-8 steering team also presented data on crisis episodes by gender and race, comparing 9-8-8 call data with the Georgia 2020 Census.

The Census data showed that most crisis episodes were self-identified females, while the other 48 percent were “Other.” Meanwhile, over 50 percent of 9-8-8 crisis calls were from self-identified males. Dawn Peel, the director of DBHDD Office of Crisis Coordination, said the difference might be that men are less likely to reach out in typical out-patient services and are more willing to reach out to an anonymous hotline.

On race, the Census data showed most individuals who had crisis episodes were White. Meanwhile, over 30 percent of callers were Black/African American, which is the largest identified population by race. Peel said there has been an increase in suicide attempts and death by suicide for the Black population since 2020.

For more information about 9-8-8, visit https://988ga.org/

Reach Amber Perry at 770-847-8334. Follow her on Twitter @ambermarieperry