L.A. County discusses success, shortcomings of its rollout of 988

Los Angeles County Seal.

Santa Clarita Valley sees suicide rates increase in the last two years; resources available to those in need 

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors received and filed a report back on the rollout of the newly established 9-8-8 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, with county staff detailing the positive impact it’s had on county residents and some challenges to overcome.  

“On Oct. 17, 2020, the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act was enacted and then in June, we really started planning with Didi Hirsch [Mental Health Services] and closely working to roll out 988 services in L.A. County,” said Lisa Wong, interim director of the L.A. County Department of Mental Health, during her report to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.  

“In July 16, 2022, we actually fully opened the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. We also began simultaneously expanding our field intervention teams, FITS, to accommodate the increase in service requests,” Wong added.  

The discussion on the rollout of 988 in the county comes in wake of tragedy and the need to provide mental health services to community members after a shooting in Monterey Park Saturday, in which a man killed 11 people during a Lunar New Year celebration.  

And in the Santa Clarita Valley, the community was faced with its own tragedy, when a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department off-duty deputy fatally shot himself at Mabel’s Roadhouse last week. In addition, according to LASD’s yearly crime and arrest reports, suicide and attempted incidents have increased in the past two years.  

According to county officials, the shooting in Monterey Park highlights the need to provide current and ongoing mental health services to the community to heal from the tragedy. In addition, county officials emphasized the need to provide equitable and diverse services for all county residents.  

The county introduced psychiatric mobile response teams and contracted for its mobile crisis outreach teams, which are all under its FITS, as part of its rollout of 988 services. According to data reported in October and November of 2022, the county’s 988 received 5,031 and 4,733 calls, respectively, from residents seeking help or some form of mental health intervention.  

Of those calls made in October and November, there were 128 and 120 calls made by unhoused individuals, and approximately 454 and 469 calls made by a third-party individual — so someone else makes the call for a friend or family member on their behalf. 

According to the data, 95% of calls for help were resolved either through a third-party rescue, a 911 response or a psychiatric mobile response team, or a self-rescue, which is when the caller is able to help themselves after calling 988. 

“In terms of [Los Angeles Police Department] and Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services, protocols were developed to triage and divert appropriate 911 calls to 988,” Wong said. “We think that was something very important to the success of 988.” 

Wong said between November and January, there were 1,253 calls diverted from 911 to 988, which saved significant resources. About 85% of those calls were resolved on the phone while 6% of those calls were redirected back to 911 and 8% were transferred to the Department of Mental health’s helpline access center.  

Supervisor Kathryn Barger, 5th District, which includes the Santa Clarita Valley, thanked the Department of Mental Health and the county team for working intently to ensure the county has a system in place to integrate the new 988 system.  

“Behavioral health crisis response has been a priority of this board and a priority of mine, as well, that traces back over the 30 years when I worked to launch the first mental evaluation teams,” Barger said. “It’s our obligation to care for and respond to mental health crisis in the same manner we would respond to a clinical health emergency.” 

Barger also noted that the Department of Mental Health should come to the board immediately if they required additional funding or support in any capacity to ensure the county as a whole serves its residents.  

Supervisors Holly Mitchell, 2nd District, and Lindsey Horvath, 3rd District, asked Wong how the county can ensure it reaches out to its diverse communities, particularly in languages they are comfortable in communicating.  

Horvath also wondered about how to improve response time, because data indicated that 988 dispatch would on some occasions take more than two hours, with some incidents taking more than four hours before a team was deployed to the location.  

“I want to address one concern, one big area of concern, that I have as it relates to staffing up, especially our mobile response teams. It’s something I’ve been hearing a lot about, especially with recent headlines and interventions that ultimately ended someone’s life,” Horvath said. 

“We want to see interventions that are helping affirms people’s lives and their safety,” she continued.  

Wong had mentioned some shortfalls of the county’s rollout of 988 services, which included an issue with staffing and long dispatch times. But Wong reassured the supervisors that they are doing everything they can to hire staff. 

“We have increased theoretical capacity. We have the funding, the budgeting in place for more teams. We have the items assigned, but we need to get the bodies in place,” Wong said.  

The Department of Mental Health also has more people in position than it did in 2021, she added, but it is still less than what their capacity is to hire. They are looking at monetary incentives to recruit people or other financial rewards such as a loan repayment stipend.  

Wong said they are also looking to broaden their campaign to students — at the high school and college levels. For example, Wong said they are excited about bringing online more psych techs, which is a one-year certification program for about $4,000 in tuition, books and supplies.  

“We have one-time dollars to be able to potentially cover that kind of cost as a stipend. We have to look into how we can do that,” Wong said. “What’s exciting, especially going into some of our underserved and underrepresented communities, is we can show people you can come into public mental health with a one-year certification.” 

“It’d be a wonderful way to at least get people in the door with mental health. I know a lot of psych tech myself who went onto becoming LCSW [licensed clinical social worker] because once they got into public mental health, they decided they really wanted to invest in it.” 

988, a resource for SCV 

According to Larry Schallert, an educational administrator at College of the Canyons, who’s involved in student wellness, which includes mental health, the 988 number is one of the best things ever. It’s a number easily remembered, he added.  

He also emphasized how important a resource it is — especially in the SCV, where suicide rates doubled from last year, he said. Official data has not been released yet.  

According to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s yearly crime and arrets reports, in 2020 there were 53 total suicide and attempted suicide incidents and in 2021 there were 58 total suicide and attempted suicide incidents in the SCV.  

“So, that means to us that mental health issues are becoming more and more severe. They are becoming more and more common,” Schallert said.  

Schallert attributed the rise in mental health emergencies as a consequence of COVID-19, though there may be multiple reasons. He described how many people might be suffering from loneliness, feelings of hopelessness, or other mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc.  

“Those people on the call, they’re highly trained to not only deal with somebody who’s suicidal, suicidal ideation, or may they’re [hurting] themselves, or dealing with depression. Every call is unique, but those folks can sometimes just resolve it with one call,” he said. 

“It doesn’t mean that’s the end of their problem, but now they have a resource,” he continued. “It’s mental health first aid.” 

Schallert encouraged anyone to use the 988 lifeline. Sometimes shame or embarrassment, or culture barriers might prevent someone from using the resource or to seek help, but it’s important to do it, he added.  

“If you’re feeling like you need help, reach out, call 988. If you know somebody that needs help or looks like they are struggling, don’t be afraid to call 988,” Schallert said. “They’ll take all calls. They’ll answer your questions. They’ll help you 24/7.” 

If you’re in need of immediate mental-health-related assistance, dial the 988 crisis line or text 741741. For more information or to learn more about mental health resources, visit bethedifferencescv.org. 

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