A water tower stands above a residential neighborhood in Horsham, Pa, Aug. 1, 2018. EPA testing between 2013 and 2015 found significant amounts of PFAS in public water supplies in 33 U.S. states.
AP Photo/Matt Rourke
Melissa Harris-Perry: You're listening to The Takeaway, I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
In July, the new federally mandated Crisis Hotline 9-8-8 launched, and despite the great promise of the program, there were concerns that 9-8-8 was ill-prepared to handle a massive influx of calls at the time of its launch. Here with me to talk about how it's going is Dan Gorenstein, executive producer and co-host of the podcast Trade-Offs. Dan, thanks for coming back on The Takeaway with us.
Dan Gorenstein: Melissa, thanks so much for having me. Really psyched to be here.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, we did talk with you a few days before 9-8-8 went live and you really did give us this sense that there was enormous potential. Has that potential been realized? How are you assessing it right now?
Dan Gorenstein: Sure. Talked to a couple folks around the country both at the national and the state level this week, Melissa, and I got one quote from a source saying many numbers are pointed in the right direction. We've seen, nationally, federal numbers are suggesting a 35% to 40% increase in overall demand going from like 260,000 calls pre-launch of 9-8-8 to 375,000 calls so that's encouraging.
There's this one set of numbers, Melissa, that I want to share with you, which really captures the spirit of the optimism, at least, that's out there, which is around the number of texts. Pre-launch in June of 2022, there were 7,300 texts, 96% of those were answered, but it took on average 6 minutes and 47 seconds for someone to respond. Now, fast forward to November, and there are 53,000 texts, so a huge explosion. The answer rate went up from 96% to 99%, and the average time to respond 54 seconds. Now before we go crazy--
Melissa Harris-Perry: This is huge.
Dan Gorenstein: No, it's enormous but at the same time, and I know you know this, a lot can go wrong in 54 seconds if someone is in crisis. While this is progress, no one I spoke to this week is like, "Our job is done."
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's so interesting you use the word optimism and in a certain way, I get that. If 54 seconds can be lifesaving, surely five minutes can be lifesaving relational saving sense of self-saving. I'm not sure if I took six minutes to respond to the text of some of my friends' family, even if they weren't in crisis, they would think, "Why is it taking so long to respond?" I'm wondering though if that increase gives us not a sense of optimism, but of pessimism that there is still such need.
Dan Gorenstein: Absolutely, there is need. I think you can read this huge increase in demand as an example of the fact that there is, in fact, so much need. Again, to use that number just because I know numbers can be hard on the radio, 260,000 to 375,000, and don't forget, 9-8-8 has not really had some national publicity blitz yet so there's no huge national awareness that 9-8-8 is really up and running and already you're seeing a huge explosion in demand for these services. I think, I don't know about you, but in my mind, the pandemic has really put mental health on the map in our country in a way that I'm 48 years old, I've never seen it like this before.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We're going to take a quick break right here, but stick with us. We've got more Takeaway in just a moment.
We're speaking with Dan Gorenstein about how the 9-8-8 Crisis Hotline program is faring since its launch in July. Dig in with me for a second on this point you're making, Dan, about the pandemic, and connect that with the text because presumably, folks who are texting are demographically different than folks who are calling in.
Dan Gorenstein: I think it's very clear that people who are texting, there are a lot of young people in this moment who are experiencing crisis, whether that's with substance use, that could be with just mental health problems, and the fact that texting is an option here with 9-8-8, the fact that chatting, like going online to communicate is an option is seen by advocates of 9-8-8 as a real win because they understand that young people aren't necessarily going to even want to pick up the phone.
That the phone actually having a conversation can alienate younger people. I think that there's a real excitement and enthusiasm that there are multiple channels out there for people to be able to contact social service help.
Melissa Harris-Perry: There's another aspect of the making the phone calls. Can you share with me that story about the fear of calling 911?
Dan Gorenstein: Absolutely. I know that advocates are collecting some stories and one story comes from a mother in New York state who has a son with serious mental illness, someone who cycles in and out of crisis. I get almost choked up thinking about this, to be honest with you. For the first time, she did not have fear of calling for help. In the past, she had been trying 911 and she always had the reservations.
This time she was like, "I can do this and I'm not as afraid." One of my sources said to me like, "Look, the whole point of 9-8-8 is so people in mental health crisis are not treated like a criminal, that something is wrong with them and that the hope, the promise of 9-8-8 is that lots more people can start to feel that way."
Melissa Harris-Perry: Part of that, it seems to me also in terms of the response, we're talking about the response time, we're talking about the mode of response. Can you also talk to me about cultural competency of the response of having, for example, people who are responding in languages other than English or who are from the communities where calls and texts are coming in from. How well-staffed is 9-8-8 relative to those concerns?
Dan Gorenstein: I think staffing, in general, is going all right. We have talked with some folks across the country that staffing is better but not fixed. Somebody in Iowa I talked to this week was talking about 80% of her staff is up and running but someone in West Virginia said only two-thirds of their call line is staffed adequately. I think in terms of cultural competency, we're seeing different communities handle that differently.
I've seen other reporting to suggest that somewhere in the Pacific Northwest has Indigenous people answering calls for indigenous responders. You're seeing some of that happen. You're seeing Spanish language options emerge for people. I think there's a real awareness among these providers that cultural competency is a must. I also know, though, that there are real financial challenges and that some states, if they don't have adequate resources, sometimes have to consider options like outsourcing calls from their state to other states and that doesn't play well.
I think people really worry that if someone's calling in crisis, you want to be able to respond to that person immediately and with services and with knowledge and that knowledge is both logistical, but it's also the cultural competency you're talking about. We all know that that takes resources and here to four, we haven't seen the kind of real investment yet that 9-8-8 needs to really flourish.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Dan Gorenstein is the executive producer and co-host of the podcast Trade-Offs. Dan, thanks for being with us today.
Dan Gorenstein: Melissa, thanks so much for having me.
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