ELLSWORTH — Today, in Hancock County, if you are having a mental health crisis, whether suicidal thoughts or erratic behavior that may alarm those near you, the options for help are limited.
Someone might call 911, which will prompt a visit from a law enforcement officer and perhaps a ride to a hospital emergency room.
But, there are times when a police response to a behavioral problem tied to mental illness may escalate the situation, according to Bob Conary, director of the Hancock County Regional Communications Center.
To that end, the Maine Legislature and the Public Utilities Commission are working on creating a system to get help for people in crisis that doesn’t rely on law enforcement and EMS response.
All of this is being prompted by the creation of a 988 number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The lifeline’s current number is (800) 273-8255, but that’s going to change to 988 effective July 16.
Conary said Maine may use 988 or it may use something different for mental health crises that do not involve suicidal individuals — for example a veteran experiencing PTSD or a mother falling into a post-partum depression.
“Right now, there’s no agency or band of mental health experts there to take these calls,” Conary said. “It’s trying to minimize police involvement with mental health situations. Someone has said we need to do more for mental health crises. Now they’ve left it up to us to figure out how to do that. It’s kind of muddy and convoluted.”
President Biden approved $282 million to improve infrastructure and call centers for the Lifeline service, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, according to a recent article in the New York Times. There are concerns that the change to 988 will greatly expand the demand for the service. People will be able to chat or text in addition to dialing 988 for voice help.
The paper said there are concerns that the hotline, which is already struggling to meet the demands, won’t be able to keep up unless states provide funding for staffing.
Conary, who was part of a working group to assess potential issues, says there’s no plan yet in Maine for funding this service.
If the Lifeline is busy with calls, they may get redirected to call centers, including Public Safety Answering Points, like the Hancock County RCC.
Funding would be needed for training dispatchers to handle these types of calls. Right now, there’s a protocol for dispatchers to follow when talking to suicidal people but not general mental health issues.
In Maine at least, there are scant resources for people who are mentally ill. So, someone answers the phone and sends help. Then what?
“There’s no avenue for mental health,” Conary said. “Back in the day they took them to Bangor Mental Health Institute. Then they decided that wasn’t the best thing to do. So now these guys will go respond to a call that someone’s in crisis and they end up getting transferred to an ER.”
There’s a cycle.
The person being checked on may tell the officer “‘I’m doing good today,’’’ Conary said.
“Then six hours later we’re back out there again. Then they get taken to Acadia [Hospital]. They’re quiet for a week until they get out. Or they end up in jail, which isn’t the place for them. We know it’s a problem, but there’s no fix because there’s no money.”
The federal government, when the bill was signed by President Donald Trump, gave states the option of adding a tax to cell phone bills to pay for the 988 service but only four states have done so, according to the Times.
Hancock County Administrator Scott Adkins, at a recent county commissioners meeting, described it as “another unfunded mandate.”
This comes as the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought even more mental health issues, particularly for young people.
U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy reported in December that “young people are facing unprecedented challenges, and the effects on their mental health is devastating.”
Just last week, Hancock County Sheriff’s deputies responded to two residences — one in Sedgwick and one in Dedham — to help families whose children had attempted suicide.