Judy Fitzgerald, commissioner, Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities

ATLANTA – A three-digit national mental health crisis hotline due to begin service next summer poses a mixed blessing for Georgia.

The new 988 line is expected to more than double the number of Georgians who will reach out for help. But state mental health officials and advocates warn a workforce shortage will make it hard to meet that increased demand.

The need for mental health and substance abuse services has ballooned during the coronavirus pandemic.

Georgia’s mental health crisis hotline has experienced a 24% increase in calls, texts and chats since the pandemic began, while mental health screenings have soared by 426%, said Judy Fitzgerald, commissioner of the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.

The state also saw a 36% increase in drug overdose deaths between April 2020, when the pandemic was in its early stages, and last April.

“People are looking for help [with] feelings of isolation, fiscal and economic impact … the challenges of coping during the COVID environment,” Fitzgerald told members of the Georgia House Rural Development Council early this month.

Even as the state tries to meet the increased demand for services, the behavioral health agency is hamstrung by a workforce shortage.

Fitzgerald said the department has suffered a net loss of 998 workers at the five state mental hospitals since January of last year, a 26% reduction in the workforce. Also, 10% of the system’s community crisis beds are “offline” on any given day due to staffing shortages, she said.

Fitzgerald said low pay is largely responsible for driving workers away. The result is more people with mental health or substance abuse problems crowding hospital emergency rooms or jails, she said.

“We are not competitive with the private sector in our state hospitals and community settings,” she said. “When people are not able to access the crisis hotline or a hospital bed, they often end up in places we don’t want them to be.”

The state is projecting the new 988 hotline will draw 564,608 calls during its first year of operation, more than double the volume of contacts the state crisis hotline is handling each year.

“This will help take some of the burden off 911,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re going to have a pathway in when someone or a relative is in one of the most difficult moments of their life.”

The higher demand for services that is bound to accompany the 988 line will come at a time Georgia is ranked 48th in the nation in access to mental health care.

That dismal ranking has prompted a coalition of 14 advocacy groups to develop a plan for improving mental health care and substance abuse treatment in Georgia.

Kim Jones, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Georgia chapter, said the plan focuses on reaching people suffering mental health or substance abuse issues before they land in a crisis unit.

“In Georgia, we have focused on crisis,” she said. “We don’t have anybody looking at preventing people from going into crisis.”

The coalition has released recommendations[DW1]  that include fully funding the 988 hotline and addressing a lack of parity in the mental health system, both in terms of pay for mental health care workers and in the way insurance companies cover mental illness.

“Insurers are treating physical health and mental health differently,” said Abdul Henderson, executive director of Mental Health America of Georgia.

Henderson’s organization is calling on the state to create a position of parity coordinator within the Georgia Department of Insurance.

Legislative leaders are taking the need to beef up mental health and substance abuse services seriously. Georgia House Speaker David Ralston announced last summer he will ask the General Assembly to earmark $75 million for additional law enforcement and mental health services.

“We will attack this through both standalone legislation and budget appropriations,” Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, told the House Rural Development Council. “Improving mental health in Georgia will remain a top priority for me as long as it takes to get the job done.”

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.