If you've ever called 911, you know the question. It's the first thing they ask.
I had to call 911 once; it happened about ten years ago. If you’ve read my book, you already know the story. My wife was suffering acute psychosis, wouldn’t take her medication, and had become belligerent. Our psychiatrist had drilled it into me--if things came to this, I had to call for immediate help.
Panicked by the stress of the situation, I didn't have much time to think. I grabbed my phone and dialed.
Once you call those three digits and provide your address, there’s no turning back. Within minutes, you hear the sirens approaching and, in almost no time, the first responders are pounding at your door. The loud alarms and flashing red lights are jarring. In an already stressful situation, they catapult the tension into overdrive.
Imagine the impact on my wife. She was already suffering brain dysfunction and severe paranoia. It was made even worse by the protocols in place for a “domestic disturbance.” A fireman quickly separated us physically; even if I could have comforted her, they wouldn’t let me near. Suddenly, my poor spouse was escorted to our front porch, where the blare of the fire engine was deafening. Several cops surrounded her.
At this point, things really deteriorated. After deducing that, indeed, my wife was suffering thought disorder, the police proceeded to handcuff her. They led her, hands locked tightly behind her back, to the waiting squad car. I knew they would take her to the local treatment center, but I didn’t realize they would do it so forcefully. Not only was the woman I loved very sick, but now she was handcuffed, terrified, and alone. I watched through the window, tears streaming down my face.
I have never begrudged the first responders for their actions. On the contrary, I cried for help, and they materialized with incredible responsiveness. But I hadn’t thought through the actual ramifications of my 911 call. I never suspected that my mentally ill wife would be treated—almost—like a dangerous criminal. The police handled her as gently as possible, but that was only because she was submissive. I hate to imagine what could have transpired otherwise.
People suffering mental illness are difficult to be around, especially those with psychosis. They're unpredictable and, if you aren't accustomed to it, eerily frightening. They certainly can't be expected to follow orders. Police, firefighters, and EMS personal can’t be trained in all manner of crisis situations and also be required to handle severe mental health emergencies. It’s asking way too much of them. And that’s why a new nationwide number will be rolling out this summer: 988.
988 will be the number to dial in a mental health crisis. The call first will be routed to a counselor trained in suicide prevention. If that person believes dispatch is required, a mobile crisis team will be sent. These first responders will specialize in dealing with people whose brains aren’t functioning properly, and they won’t be so quick with the handcuffs. It will be an incredible improvement; I only wish it were in place a decade ago.
“And if you call, I will answer." -- Barenaked Ladies
States need to implement the new number by this coming summer. It was created through a bipartisan bill signed into law in the fall of 2020—yes, you heard that correctly, a bipartisan bill. In a country so divided, Americans all agree on the need for a better approach to mental health. In fact, the National Alliance for Mental Illness recently released the results of a poll it conducted on the new 988 initiative. The results were overwhelming:
90% support the creation of mental health, drug/alcohol, and suicide crisis call centers
84% support funding for a 911-like nationwide number for mental health crisis response
73% would be willing to contribute to funding a nationwide number with a $1/month charge on their phone bill (similar to current 911 funding)
By changing our approach, we’ll not only improve outcomes, but we’ll also save lives. Understandably, encounters between police and the mentally ill are fraught with tragedy. According to the Washington Post, over 20% of all fatal police shootings in 2019 involved someone with a mental illness. As President Biden said on the campaign trail: