988: A New Lifeline for People in Crisis

with Carlean Ponder of The Arc

For some with intellectual and developmental disabilities, particularly people of color, a law enforcement response to a mental health emergency has ended in tragedy or incarceration.

Carlean Ponder, Director of Disability Rights and Housing Policy for The Arc, joins host Tetiana Anderson to discuss 988 – a new dialing code that connects people in crisis to trained mental health professionals and resources.

Posted on:

June 14, 2022

Hosted by: Tetiana Anderson
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: 988 -- three numbers that may just save lives. The new dialing code launches in 2022 and will connect people in crisis to trained mental health professionals who can provide resources for counseling and suicide prevention and help keep them out of the justice system. Hello and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. The new code is short and easier to remember than 10-digit numbers like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. But 988 goes beyond just suicide prevention. An estimated 37% of people incarcerated in prisons have a diagnosed mental health condition, and more than half of Black Americans with a disability have been arrested by the time they turn 28. Advocates say the new number will allow people suffering from mental illnesses and intellectual disabilities to stay out of that pipeline and get the help they need. Joining me now is Carlean Ponder, director of Disability Rights and Housing Policy for The Arc. And, Carlean, thank you for being here.

Ponder: Oh, thank you for having me.

Anderson: So why is it important to have something like 988? How is it working, and who is it serving?

Ponder: I think having a short three-digit number like 988 to complement 911 is just a wonderful opportunity to begin to transition away from having a single response to people who are in crisis. So 988 is national, so the number will be in use beginning in July 2022 across the country. It's really for anybody. But at The Arc of the US, we represent the civil rights and human rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. And we really hope to see people with disabilities of all kinds, including mental disabilities, be served by having an alternative to 911 when there's a crisis.

Anderson: So, how much of a benefit is this to that community -- people who are living with disabilities and their families?

Ponder: Having an alternative to 911, which has been the only option that we've had in this country when people are in crisis, is incredibly important for communities of people with disabilities, like the people we represent at The Arc, people who have intellectual and developmental disabilities. We have seen far too often where law enforcement is called into a community to de-escalate a situation where somebody is in -- is in crisis. And unfortunately, when they meet people with guns and badges, that generally does not help to de-escalate or calm a person who's in crisis. It tends to, you know, raise everybody's blood levels. And for Black people in particular who are disproportionately killed by police according to our percentage numbers in the country, we hope that having an alternative to law enforcement for people who are experiencing crisis will also be safer. You know, we don't want to live in fear that calling 911, for example, when we know having dispatch law enforcement come out to a situation. We'd like to have an alternative where there's a continuum of care that does not solely rely upon our law enforcement to respond to people in crisis.

Anderson: So what does 988 look like in real life? Can you share an example of the kind of difference it can make?

Ponder: Absolutely. But first, I should say that's going to depend on what each community decides in terms of supporting 988 with a continuum of care. So, a best practice would be this. Somebody calls 988 because they're maybe suffering from depression. They get connected to a call center in their local community. The call, you know, is one that needs a little bit more care than just the phone call. So that call center is then able to dispatch out a mobile crisis unit. A mobile crisis unit to be staffed with a clinician. It could have peer workers who are generally folks in the community with some lived experience. They go out to that person's home, their work force, or if it's an unsheltered person, out on the streets and they're able to de-escalate the situation, they're able to, you know, just build a rapport and talk to the person and bring some calm into that crisis situation. If they're not, from there we'd like to see communities have what we call respite centers, which are -- they could look like a house, very homey feel, but it's a place that's staffed with maybe a clinician and a caseworker, somebody who can offer the person an opportunity to get connected to other services in the community should they need that.

Anderson: So, I'm wondering about law enforcement, Carlean, and what sort of response there has been from those in that community when it comes to how the system will help their work in the future.

Ponder: I mean, I think generally most law enforcement officers are supportive of having an alternative to 911 for calls that really don't involve crime, for calls that involve somebody who's experiencing a mental health crisis. For example, we hope that this will provide an alternative so that we have people who are trained in dealing with people who are experiencing trauma, perhaps people who have an intellectual disability and another mental health impairment at the same time, and somebody who understands what that looks like, what that person's behaviors may be in a situation such as that and can help to de-escalate that situation rather than approach that person with a badge and gun or a taser or something like that that would be incredibly traumatizing for somebody who's already in a crisis situation.

Anderson: I'm guessing that people are going to want to know more about this. If so, what is your website? Where can they go?

Ponder: So, they can find more information on The Arc website, which is www.thearc.org.

Anderson: Carlean Ponder of the Arc, thank you so much for this.

Ponder: Thank you, Tetiana. Thanks for having us.

Anderson: And thank you as well for joining. For more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, visit ComcastNewsmakers.com. I'm Tetiana Anderson.

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