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Should you call 988 or 911 for mental health help? Here’s what to know

Nearly two years ago, Oklahomans got access to a three-digit phone number, 988, for anyone to call or text in a mental health crisis.

In Oklahoma, dialing the number connects to an in-state crisis call center staffed by experts who address and deescalate mental health crises, and help people get connected with other mental health resources. Before 988, it was a job that often fell on emergency dispatchers staffing another three-digit number: 911.

After 988’s first year, the Oklahoma City Police Department reported that the number of mental health calls officers responded to fell by 12.4%. Now that 988 is an option, the question may arise: Should you call 911 or 988?

It depends.

When to call 911

Dialing 911 will always be the right call if you see an immediate danger, said Lt. Vanessa Hurd, commanding officer of OKCPD’s Crisis Intervention Team.

“Maybe someone has a weapon, or if they are an immediate threat to themselves or others in any other way, then it’s appropriate to call 911,” Hurd said.

Once on the phone, a 911 dispatcher will assess the situation and decide who to send. If it requires a police response, the dispatcher will make every attempt to send a specially trained officer. Over 400 OKCPD officers have received specialized training, and the city has about 170 officers on the crisis intervention team.

“These are officers that are specifically trained to handle emotionally charged situations or interact with individuals who are in crisis,” said Hurd.

A dispatcher may also decide to divert the caller to the 988 call center.

When to call 988

If it’s purely a mental health-related incident that wouldn’t require law enforcement or paramedics, then 988 would be the most appropriate. Hurd noted that 988 is less likely to respond if an individual isn’t cooperative.

“So if this is a family member, then 988 is probably going to be more appropriate because you can communicate with that family member, and together decide that person wants mental health help,” said Hurd.

One of the groups that can respond via a 988 call is Champions, the mobile crisis team run by NorthCare. In 2022, Champions partnered with OKCPD’s Springlake Division to help reduce police presence at mental health calls by focusing on interactions with mental health professionals. That pilot program was eventually expanded citywide.

More: How 988 saved an Oklahoman’s life and inspired her to advocate for accessible mental health resources

If a situation warrants it, the person answering at 988 can also request specially trained police officers to respond alongside the mental health professionals. It’s a collaboration that Hurd said cannot be overstated.

“They need us to make sure that everyone in the situation is safe, and we need them to bring their expertise to the incident so that they can resolve issues that they’re better able to handle,” she said.

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: When to call the 988 hotline, and when to call 911 for mental health

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