OPINION: Save lives by keeping AB 988 alive

Drawing of two hands holding phones - one calling 988 and the other calling 911
(Laura Jaramillo • The Student Life)

CW: This article contains mentions of suicide and police brutality

In 2019, when Miles Hall, a 23-year-old Black man living in California, experienced a schizophrenic mental health crisis, his family called 911 for help. Tragically, within a minute of their arrival, police killed him by resorting to lethal force

Last year, California’s State Assembly passed AB 988, or the Miles Hall Lifeline Act. AB 988 creates a sustainable funding mechanism for 988 — the new phone number for the National Suicide Hotline. The act outlines an improved vision of California’s mental health system that would put mental health professionals at the center of crisis response and minimize law enforcement’s role, which could prevent atrocities like this from reoccurring. To cultivate a better future for mental health and significantly reduce deaths by suicide and at the hands of police, we must advocate for California to pass AB 988.

Everyone loved the idea of 988 until it was time to make it a reality. Congress voted unanimously to pass the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020. The bill established 9-8-8 as the universal phone number “for the purpose of the national suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline system.” Even former President Donald Trump liked it — he signed it into law. But when it came time to pass legislation at the state level to fund the framework laid out in the national bill, difficulties arose. 

AB 988 would largely fund 988 with a fee — capped at eighty cents and “based on the Office of Emergency Services’ estimate of 988 costs”— on customers’ monthly phone bills. This funding mechanism is the same way that 911 is paid for and provides reliable funding independent of the state of California’s finances. However, AB 988 has been stalled in the Senate and cannot pass until the Legislature is back in session in January. If the Senate does not move quickly to pass AB 988, California’s mental health response system will be left with a funding deficit. In short, people will die. 

When 988 goes live in July 2022, in the first year of implementation alone, California call centers will need to respond to an anticipated 300 percent increase in call volume. Without adequate funding, this would cripple California’s mental health crisis response system. The amount necessary to adequately fund the system’s upstart costs, call center operations for the first year and technical enhancements is around $50 million — so far, only a $20 million investment from the state Department of Health Care Services has been made.

Convincing conservative legislators to vote for funding increases is difficult in itself. Further compounding the challenge is the telecommunications industry which supported 988 at the national level but has worked around the clock to kill state-specific legislation. Even though the telecommunications industry enjoyed positive publicity for their support of 988, they are unwilling to pay the price to save lives: a small fee on their customer’s bills. 

It is not clear to Lauren Finke, a mental health advocate who works on AB 988 with the Kennedy Forum, whether the telecommunications industry successfully sabotaged the bill this year. However, she said in an interview that industry lobbyists could still pose a threat next year, when legislators will be vying for reelection and tax increases are at the top of voters’ minds. 

Although the bill was delivered to the State Senate on June 3, the last action it took on AB 988 was on June 24. Moreover, the Legislature’s interim recess began on Sept. 10, which effectively rules out the possibility of establishing a long-term funding stream for 988 this year. One can only speculate on why leadership decided to stall the legislation. However, Finke and Tara Gamboa-Eastman from the Steinberg Institute (another critical stakeholder of AB 988) believe it may have been a combination of poor timing and procedural and policy considerations. 

The Steinberg Institute and Kennedy Forum will most likely pursue AB 988 in January, but are open to other options to establish a funding stream, such as working through the budget process. Nevertheless, Gamboa-Eastman and Finke feel that AB 988 ended in a strong position from a policy standpoint. Additionally, the bill has an urgency clause that assures it will be considered in a timely fashion next year.

Suicide is an epidemic that affects everyone, but not equally. In 2019, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in America. Suicide is most frequent among American Indian, Alaska Native and non-Hispanic white people. In 2020, 42 percent of LGBTQ people ages 13-24 had considered attempting suicide and 48 percent reported a desire, and an inability, to receive professional mental health counseling. 

Even more painful than these statistics is the fact that these deaths are preventable. If legislators choose to fund 988 infrastructure at the state level, we can cultivate a better mental health crisis system. California is a better-equipped state than most to make this a reality, but only if sustainable funding is established. 

There are many ways that students at the 5Cs can help pass AB 988. In terms of digital advocacy, you can sign the Miles Hall Foundation’s petition (Take Action to Decriminalize California’s Emergency Response to Mental Health Crises) or tweet about your support for AB 988. Another convenient method of advocacy is to call or write your legislators and county to explain why AB 988 (or 988 more broadly) is important to you; legislators respond strongly to personal stories about your relation to this issue. You can also advocate for 988 at the local level by contributing your opinion to city council meetings. Moreover, we can mobilize our community through rallies and by hosting vigils to honor those who have died because of the mental health crisis system; both actions draw media attention which compels legislators to act. 

Everyone is affected by this intersectional issue. If we fail to act, AB 988 could fail, in which case Californians like Miles Hall struggling with mental illness will continue to die at the hands of police and by suicide. But if we take the time to advocate for the people who have died and those who will if we do nothing, I am optimistic that we can move our legislators to decriminalize mental health crises in California.

Porter Reyes PO ’25 is from Manhattan, New York. He is a political junkie interested in the inner workings of public policy and writing about issues that provoke him. 

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