988
The national 988 hotline, the successor to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, started up on July 16.
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Who isn’t a sucker for the feel-good stories sandwiched between doomsday headlines?

The tearjerker buffers that distract us from now-public knowledge that President Zelensky’s childhood friend back-stabbed their country by cozying up to the Russians. Or confirmation of what we feared about Uvalde in the first place, that the response effort resembled a “Three Stooges” episode that wasn’t the least bit funny.

Natalie LaddWe need those feel-good vignettes, even if some of them are a stretch as to why they deserve celebrating.  

Every weeknight before signing off, David Muir ends ABC’s “World News Tonight” with a shout-out to a nursing home that threw a party for a veteran turning 102, or a kid who set up a small free library with a Hot Wheels car exchange. These wisps of humanity help us digest our dinner, but are they so out of the norm that they’re a behavioral rarity? 

Call me Mary Sunshine, but I hope not. 

What is worth celebrating, despite the doubters, is the rollout of the national 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. Those three digits, the successor to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, summon help for people with thoughts of suicide or other mental health emergencies.

Instead of dialing 911 and having police respond, the call will be routed to an appropriate local crisis responder. Instead of police showing up at the home of a mentally ill person and potentially exacerbating the situation, a trained professional will respond. It may be by phone or video telehealth, but it’s a whole lot less intimidating for all involved. 

Because there are more good folks in blue than not, this effort will help with the perception that all police are trigger-happy, especially in communities of color and diversity. There are no hall passes for racial profiling or power trips, but police officers simply don’t have the same training as mental health professionals. We wouldn’t dispatch a psychiatrist to a high-speed car chase, would we? 

The federal government allotted states $280 million for the program and Maine has been developing steps to implement the effort since March 2021. According to Sarah Squirrell,  acting director of the Office of Behavioral Health (a branch of Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services), the state invested $450,000 to support 988 implementation. An additional $10 million in crisis system services was allocated for the upcoming fiscal term. There will be early roll-out hiccups and glitches for sure, but 988 and our substantial monetary commitment is a process deserving of headlines and celebrations. 

For anyone interested (which should be everyone) a good look at the work and research of the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, Virginia, provides statistics (staggering) and hope for their umbrella aim of “Eliminating Barriers to the Treatment of Mental Illness.” It’s a gargantuan task and while I’m not privy to the inner workings or politics of the center, their refusal of donations from pharmaceutical companies validates their mission in spades. As far as the purpose of 988 from their perspective, the center recently tweeted, “The idea is to try to catch people earlier in crisis before it becomes an emergency that might require a police response.”

It isn’t a secret that an astonishing number of mass shootings, police fatalities, family homicides, and of course, suicides, stem from an untreated mental illness or perhaps one that fell through societal cracks. So, for those who think 988 is a waste of time and money, take a look at our homeless population here in Portland. Not all homeless folks are mentally ill, but nationwide, 38 percent are and it stands to reason Portland reflects that number. 

Then, think about the 510 in-patient mental health beds available in Maine: 360 are in private hospitals, like Spring Harbor run by Maine Health in Portland, or Northern Light Acadia in Bangor, and about 150 more are in two state-run hospitals, Riverview in Augusta and Dorothea Dix in Bangor. 

Now, tell me again that the 988 hotline isn’t worth David Muir’s accolades. 

When looking around for the closing feel-good stories of the day, I hope to hear about successes logged by the July 16 debut of 988. I’d like to see its positive stats rise while police-involved fatalities of the mentally ill shrink proportionately. But we need to keep all that heavy stuff interspersed with stories about rescue dogs, people generous with their time, and anonymous donations made to worthy causes. 

While cheering on the efforts of the Treatment Advocacy Center and Maine’s resources, the feel-goods are necessary to help us with our own mental health and wellness. With everything David Muir throws at us, remember to breathe. But if it becomes unbearable, call the free, confidential, professionally staffed 988 number. Then, take another breath.

Natalie Ladd is an award-winning columnist, freelance writer, and Portland restaurant veteran. She loves Boston sports, California cabernets, and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. Reach her at [email protected]phoenix.me.