In 2021, Vivek Murthy, the Surgeon General of the United States, issued an advisory about the mental health crisis among teens and young adults in the United States. She stressed that “even before the pandemic, an alarming number of young people struggled with feelings of helplessness, depression, and thoughts of suicide.”
Murthy’s advisory emphasized that the pandemic has been especially detrimental to youth with disabilities who were forced to cope with the inadequacies of online learning, day program closures, caregiver shortages, reduced socialization opportunities and more. COVID-19 also added to the already significant stressors of parents and family members of disabled youth.
But disabled youth and their families aren’t the only Americans with disabilities who faced increased mental health challenges before and after the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported that adults those living with disabilities are far more likely to experience mental health and substance abuse disorders than those without disabilities.
A new national hotline – 988 – which launched on July 16, may be one step toward mitigating some aspects of the crisis.
According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the hotline, designated by Congress in 2020, “offers 24/7 call, text and chat access to trained crisis counselors who can help people experiencing suicidal, substance use, and/or mental health crisis, or any other kind of emotional distress. People can also dial 988 if they are worried about a loved one who may need crisis support.” The hotline will be “operated through the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.”
SAMHSA considers 988 “a first step towards a transformed crisis care system in America.” SAMHSA and others in the mental health and addiction fields believe that 988 will be more effective than the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline because it offers more direct access to the Lifeline network and additional mental health and addiction resources. It differs from the services provided through 911, which typically sends police, fire fighters and EMS teams to crisis locations.
Previously the National Suicide Prevention Hotline had a long phone number that was hard to remember. Advocates of 988 believe that having a 3-digit phone number that’s easy to remember, will also make a difference.
Kim Musheno, vice president of public policy at the Autism Society of America recently told Disability Scoop, “[we] are optimistic that 988 will benefit people with autism and other developmental disabilities, many of whom have co-occurring mental health conditions.”
Musheno explained that when individuals with autism and their families are confronted with a mental health or behavioral crisis, they “often have nowhere to turn. This often results in a call to the police or taking the individual to a hospital. Neither is appropriate,” said Musheno, who hopes that call center staff at 988 will be better equipped to handle mental health crises. This is especially critical in the case of developmentally or intellectually disabled individuals who may have difficulty expressing their needs to people who don’t have specialized training.
Despite positive reactions to 988, many disabilities activists believe that much more needs to be done to improve behavioral health services for individuals with disabilities and concurrent mental health disorders. For one thing, they say that call center staff should receive mandated training in working specifically with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In addition, they are calling for better community supports for disabled citizens.