Comment: 988 crisis line will help, but care needed after call

The new mental health crisis lines can be backed with services and supports using a clubhouse model.

By Kailey Fiedler-Gohlke / For The Herald

As the new 988 mental health hotline rolls out across the country, there’s growing concern among officials and advocates alike that the system is not ready to meet demand.

In Washington, one of only four states that managed to pass comprehensive legislation (House Bill 1477) to sustainably fund its 988 call centers, the outlook surprisingly isn’t any better. Already, more than a third of crisis calls made in Washington are rerouted out of state to backup centers, where operators inevitably won’t be as familiar with local needs or resources. The state continues to struggle to fill call center jobs and the situation only stands to get worse as more people turn to 988 for help.

The hope is that 988 will eventually allow people experiencing a mental health emergency to easily reach a trained crisis counselor 24 hours a day, seven days a week, via call, text, or chat, and be met by mobile crisis teams; drastically reducing police involvement on mental health calls to the few, limited circumstances when public safety is at risk.

But our vision for mental health care shouldn’t start and stop at the moment of crisis. We need a more comprehensive and compassionate continuum of services, one that holistically supports a person’s wellbeing, and works to prevent crises to begin with.

As the chief executive officer of HERO House NW, a group of clubhouses based in Bellevue, Everett and Seattle, I’ve seen firsthand how our model of care has been able to help people whose lives have been disrupted by mental illness to recover and thrive.

Clubhouses like ours provide a safe, dedicated environment for people living with serious mental illness, where they can get access to practical services — including job training, housing support, education and affordable, healthy meals — that consider all of a person’s needs, not just their clinical ones.

While medication and therapy treat the symptoms of serious mental illness, clubhouses address the deep social isolation that so often accompanies these conditions. By bringing people into an intentional community and building the necessary trust, we’re able to work with members to improve their health without turning to coercion and forced treatment, all while reducing the negative impacts of incarceration, homelessness and neglect that people with serious mental illness disproportionately face.

This approach, rooted in respect and human dignity, has a long, proven history of incredible results ever since Fountain House first pioneered the model in the late 1940s. To this day, clubhouse members are more likely to be employed and stably housed, and have lower health care costs than others living with serious mental illness.

For Lisa, a member of Bellevue Clubhouse, our community gave her the confidence, acceptance and strength of purpose to make major changes in her life, including going back to school. She’s now joined our board as a clubhouse representative working to aid others in their recovery and tells me that: “We may have to deal with a serious mental illness for the rest of our lives, but we can still have meaningful lives, one day at a time.”

While 988 won’t be perfect overnight, it shows there’s bipartisan support among state officials, policy makers and the public at large to advance mental health care; working towards a continuum of services that should leverage the power of clubhouse communities as an important tool for a person’s recovery.

To accomplish a truly effective care response, we need to give people in crisis more than a number to turn to. Expanding clubhouse capacity should be a critical part of our strategy and approach, recognizing that it’s a model shown to save lives, save money, and improve outcomes with grace.

Kailey Fiedler-Gohlke is chief executive officer of HERO House NW in Bellevue, a member-led community for people living with serious mental illness that is modeled after Fountain House and part of Fountain House’s national clubhouse network.

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