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Poll Finds Many Believe Police Are the Wrong Responders for Mental Health Crises

With a July 2022 deadline looming for the nationwide launch of a new three-digit number for suicide prevention and mental health crisis—988—a new poll from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has found deep dissatisfaction with the current state of mental health treatment and strong opposition to law enforcement responses to mental health crises.

NAMI is leading REIMAGINE: A National Week of Action to Reimagine Our National Response to Crisis, with more than 30 national partners to push policymakers to invest in a suicide prevention and mental health crisis system. This poll, conducted by Ipsos on behalf of NAMI, shows that creating and funding a 988 crisis response system—an alternative to 911 for mental health crises—shows broad support for a robust mental health crisis system, as well as federal and local action to fund it. The poll was conducted October 22–25, 2021, and surveyed 2,049 adults.

Eighty-six percent of Americans agreed that building and providing mental health crisis services can prevent people from cycling in and out of emergency departments, arrests, incarceration, and homelessness. Three-quarters (75%) of Americans are not content with the status of mental health treatment in this country, regardless of political affiliation, while 54% of Americans say there is significant room for improvement in addressing mental health and suicide crises. That number is far higher than for the need to significantly improve other medical emergency responses (26%).

While 72% of respondents have a favorable opinion of law enforcement in their own community, 4 in 5 people believe that mental health professionals should be the primary first responders when someone is having a mental health or suicide crisis rather than law enforcement.

“By responding to a mental health crisis with mental health professionals, lives will be saved and people in crisis can get the right care when they need it most,” says Daniel H. Gillison Jr., NAMI CEO. “Mental illness is complicated and crisis care requires a broad continuum of crisis services, including culturally competent care, that can connect people with services in the community. This survey shows that we have an opportunity—and broad desire—to provide better mental health crisis care and reduce our dependence on law enforcement to respond to mental health crises. We call policymakers to reimagine crisis response so everyone in crisis gets an effective response and is treated with dignity and respect.”

Millions of mental health crisis calls are made every year to 911 and local crisis lines. Most communities have no option other than a police response. According to The Washington Post, 1 in 4 people who were shot and killed by police between 2015 and 2020 had a mental illness, and of that number, 1 in 3 were people of color. About 3 in 5 respondents (62%) said they would be afraid that the police might hurt a loved one while responding to a mental health crisis, and almost one-half (46%) would not feel safe calling 911 if a loved one had a mental health crisis. People of color and those with a mental health condition are more likely to agree that they would not feel safe or may feel afraid calling current emergency services (911 or the police) if a loved one needed help during a mental health crisis. Additionally, Americans do not believe those having a mental health crisis should be taken to jail or into police custody for help, which happens frequently in many communities.

The survey shows wide-ranging support for funding and covering mental health crisis services, supporting NAMI’s calls for government investment in crisis services and requiring that insurers cover the full range of crisis care. An overwhelming majority—90%—support the creation of 24/7 mental health, alcohol/drug, and suicide crisis call centers and 87% support requiring all health insurers cover mental health crisis services, while 81% support providing follow-up mental health care, including medication or therapy, regardless of one’s insurance coverage or ability to pay.

Similar numbers support state (85%) and federal (84%) funding for 988 call centers and crisis response services. Nearly three-quarters of adults surveyed—73%—would also be willing to pay a monthly fee on phone bills to support the 988 system, similar to fees charged on phone bills for 911. More than one-third of respondents were willing to pay a $1 or more per month. Once respondents were told that 911 fees average $1 a month, overall support for a fee increased slightly (78%) but support for paying at least $1 grew (44%), indicating many prioritize the 988 number at least as high as 911 emergency services.

Despite the impending launch of 988 in July, a significant majority—80%—have never heard of the new emergency number, pointing to the need to educate people about the system and the support necessary to implement it. Only 4% of Americans are somewhat or very familiar with 988.

Throughout the week, the REIMAGINE Week of Action will feature advocate mobilization and free, virtual events taking place November 16–18. The Week of Action aims to call attention to the challenges experienced by anyone in crisis, with focused discussions on racial equity, youth and young adults in crisis and the strain our current response puts on other emergency systems. Actress, activist and NAMI Ambassador DeWanda Wise will have a conversation with Taun Hall, mother of Miles Hall and Executive Director of The Miles Hall Foundation, about the trauma and tragedy of our current response. Representatives of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Washington State Rep. Tina Orwall (D), Utah State Rep. Steve Eliason (R), and more will also speak to policymaker action and what we need to do to help every person in mental health crisis get a mental health response.

Source: National Alliance on Mental Illness