Allegan County lawmaker proposes mental health crisis line merger

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By KYLE DAVIDSON
Capital News Service

LANSING — As the federal government works to roll out a 9-8-8 suicide hotline, one lawmaker is looking to expand crisis line services within Michigan.

Rep. Mary Whiteford, R-Casco Township, wants to  incorporate the Michigan Crisis and Access line and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline under the same three-digit phone number. 

“It’s just to make it really simple. No matter where you live in Michigan, you have one number that you can call to find local help,” Whiteford said. 

Whiteford had introduced the Michigan Crisis and Access Line that was signed into law in January 2020. The 24/7 phone, text and chat line serves the Upper Peninsula and Oakland County and is rolling out statewide.

It can be accessed at 1-844-44 MICAL.

With the national designation of 9-8-8 as the new phone number for the National Suicide Hotline, Whiteford wants to designate the Michigan Crisis and Access Line as Michigan’s crisis hotline center. That would provide intervention services and care to anyone accessing the 9-8-8 hotline. 

“We’ve always talked about aligning (the Michigan Crisis and Access Line) with 9-8-8, but that was the next step,” Whiteford said.

There are 46 community mental health centers in the state that operate local crisis lines.

The advantage of the Michigan Crisis and Access Line is you can advertise one number statewide and receive referral to local mental health resources and the local crisis line, said Robert Sheehan, the executive director of the Community Mental Health Association of Michigan. 

The Crisis and Access Line is also working to provide other resources, including referral to substance abuse recovery centers and the psychiatric bed registry.

“That’s not been available statewide, so that would be a real great cataloging of mental health resources on a statewide level,” Sheehan said.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Michigan residents age 10 to 34, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. In 2020, 76.5% of Michigan communities did not have enough mental health providers to serve residents, the foundation reported.

In addition to incorporating the state’s crisis line under 9-8-8, Whiteford also introduced a companion bill to create a fund to support crisis services.

It would gather funds from a monthly 55-cent charge to the cell phone bills of all Michigan residents and a 2% charge per retail transaction for prepaid wireless calling services. That charge can be adjusted to fund program operations, expansions and maintenance. 

“I really wanted to get that out there to have a conversation about something we could do to have sustainable funding for crisis services for the state,” Whiteford said. 

The state Department of Health and Human Services would be responsible for managing the fund. It could be used to set up additional crisis stabilization units and to offer more services because the fund does not lapse into the state’s general fund at the end of the year, Whiteford said.

While Michigan has a very comprehensive mental health system, it receives about 95% of its funding from Medicaid, a public health insurance program for low-income people, making it inaccessible to most residents who do not qualify for Medicaid, Sheehan said.

By taking a public utility approach in providing a crisis response line and crisis response teams, anybody can call and get the care they need, he said.

While Whiteford is the sole sponsor of these bills, she said she expects they will receive broad, bipartisan support in the Committee on Health Policy. Both bills are pending committee review.