The pandemic has hit people hard — especially their mental health. As the CEO of the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization, I know that we have to act urgently to avoid traumatic outcomes. Our failure to treat mental health crises leads to people cycling in and out of jails and emergency rooms, homelessness — or worse.

People with mental illnesses are booked into our nation’s jails and prisons an estimated two million times each year, where less than half receive treatment for their mental health condition. And according to the Washington Post, one in four people shot and killed by police between 2015 and 2020 had a mental illness, with roughly one-third of that group being people of color.

These numbers represent real people with real mental health crises, such as Walter Wallace Jr., who was killed by Philadelphia police after his family called 911 when he was experiencing a mental health crisis.

Knowing these stories and statistics, it’s hard to imagine calling 911 for help if my son or daughter were experiencing a mental health crisis.

Law enforcement officers themselves are often the first to admit that they aren’t equipped to respond to psychiatric emergencies and situations that should be handled by a trained mental health professional. And the status quo hurts them, too: Roughly 10% of law enforcement agency budgets, along with one-fifth of staff time, is spent responding to and transporting people with mental illness.

A new crisis hotline number gives us a chance to put services into place that can help, but we have to act now.

» READ MORE: 988 suicide phone hotline getting $282M to ease July launch

In July, a new, nationwide phone number for mental health and suicidal crises will be available: 988.

This easy-to-remember alternative to 911 is a vital first step, but a question remains: What type of concrete help will be available when people dial those three digits? States will need 24/7 call centers staffed by trained individuals, mobile crisis teams, and crisis stabilization services that transition callers to follow-up care. This requires investment and action from both state and federal policymakers.

Last month, the federal government announced key funding to states to help bolster crisis call center capacity — a much-needed investment before the launch of the 988 system. But we cannot stop there.

In the fiscal year 2022 federal budget, Congress must include a new $100 million grant program to jump-start communities’ mobile crisis programs so that there are mental health professionals who can respond if more intensive, in-person help is needed. This should include a requirement that states spend 10% of their mental health block grant on crisis services and provide additional resources to respond to 988 calls. States should also quickly pass legislation to create small fees on phone bills, like we already have for 911, to ramp up these services.

After 20 months of COVID-19, there has never been a more critical time to invest in a new crisis response system. More people are reporting depression, anxiety, loneliness, substance use, and suicidal ideation than ever before. On our organization’s HelpLine alone, we’ve seen a 185% increase in calls related to suicide and a 251% increase in calls related to mental health crises compared with pre-pandemic times.

Plenty of politicians have been outspoken about the importance of mental health during the pandemic, and Congress has made critical progress with the creation of 988. It’s time to back it up.

“Plenty of politicians have been outspoken about the importance of mental health during the pandemic, and Congress has made critical progress with the creation of 988. It’s time to back it up.”

Daniel H. Gillison Jr.

When people start dialing 988 next summer, there needs to be help available. We need not only trusted, trained, and capable crisis counselors answering the call, but we also need to be able to quickly connect the person in crisis or their loved one to local mental health resources for in-person help, especially in an emergency.

It’s time to reimagine our crisis response system. People in crisis deserve help, not handcuffs — and certainly not death. Join me in calling on Congress and state policymakers to make real investments in crisis services today. It’s a call we can’t afford to put on hold.

Daniel H. Gillison Jr. is the chief executive officer of the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI). @DanGillison.

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.