New bill seeks to ensure upcoming mental health crisis hotline serves the most vulnerable


Jonathan Murillo, 23, was shot and killed by Los Angeles police last month moments before the arrival of mental health specialists who had been sent to respond to reports of a possible assault at the location.

A family member at the home had told police Murillo was armed with a knife and “possibly under the influence of narcotics,” according to police.

The type of fatal interaction Murillo had with the police is what lawmakers and advocates hope to avoid with the creation of a new national three-digit mental health crisis hotline. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which uses the 10-digit number 800-273-TALK (8255), will soon be referred to as 988. The goal is to reduce violent and deadly interactions between law enforcement and those experiencing mental illness.

The 988 hotline is supposed to be expanded by July, but Rep. Tony Cárdenas, D-Calif., realized after Murillo’s death near his district that many cities in almost every state lack adequate resources to effectively implement it by then.

In order to address that challenge, Cárdenas introduced new bipartisan legislation Thursday to help states with additional federal funding and guidance on how to create a crisis response system that relies on trained mental health specialists, instead of armed officers.

“What we’re going to have with 988 is the same thing as 911 but for mental health, for people with drug addictions and people who are contemplating suicide,” Cárdenas told NBC News. “The perfect situation is that states will start implementing the resources, the funding, to keep it going every day, every week, every month, every year, just like local states and communities do that now with 911.”

“At the same time, 988 will be there to make sure that we have a mental health professional to be there, to take that call, to respond and to make sure that somebody comes out there,” he added. “And then, when they need help long term, that there’s some place to go for them to get that help.”

More than 1 in 5 people fatally shot by police have mental illnesses, according to a Washington Post database of fatal U.S. shootings by on-duty police officers. Since 2015, police have fatally shot at least 1,569 people with mental illnesses.

Then-President Donald Trump signed into law a bipartisan bill before leaving office in 2020 to replace the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline with a 911-like mental health emergency line.

Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., first introduced the bill that helped make the 988 mental health crisis hotline a reality, a move he said “was a critical step toward destigmatizing mental health and making care more accessible.”

Now, he is co-sponsoring Cárdenas’ bill to improve the hotline’s implementation.

“The United States is facing a mental health crisis — made worse by two years of pandemic-induced trauma,” Moulton said in a statement. “We’re long overdue to provide this service to Americans looking for a reliable, free place to turn during mental health emergencies.”

The 988 line comes at a time when suicide rates have increased by 33 percent in the last two decades, particularly among young people during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to Cárdenas’ office.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., whose 25-year-old son, Tommy, died by suicide a week before the Jan. 6 insurrection, said in a statement that he is “proud to help introduce the 988 Implementation Act to give our people a lifeline in their most difficult times.”

People with untreated mental illnesses are also 16 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement, according to the national nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center. This risk increases for people of color — particularly young Black and Indigenous people, as well as Hispanic men — who are more likely than white people to be killed by police, according to a study published by the official journal of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We’re spending 23 percent more per call, when it’s a mental health call, when we shouldn’t be sending out the police or a paramedic. What we should be sending out is a mental health professional,” Cárdenas said. “This will be saving the taxpayers money in the long run, and it’s going to save lives.”

“Families are not going to be in distress and in stress because there’s going to be better outcomes for everyone,” he added.

In his district, Isaias Cervantes, 25, was shot by a Los Angeles sheriff’s deputy and left paralyzed one year ago “within 40 seconds of police entering the home,” Cárdenas said.

Cervantes had reportedly assaulted his mother and a crisis counselor who was assisting him with his mental health issues, according to the Los Angeles County Office of Inspector General. Deputies reported Cervantes was killed after he gouged a deputy’s eyes while attempting to remove the officer’s firearm from his holster.

The Los Angeles County Office of Inspector General found that a team of mental health specialists was not asked to respond because the emergency call was coded as a family disturbance call and not as a mental health related call, even though the caller specifically mentioned that Cervantes was having a mental health crisis and requested he be taken to a hospital.

“It was a terrible outcome. It should not have happened. And with 988, those outcomes are going to start to diminish,” Cárdenas said.

According to the congressman’s office, his bill has been deemed “a priority” under the White House’s unity agenda, consisting of policies where there has historically been support from both Republicans and Democrats. The office also said that appropriating committees are looking forward to “following through with the funding.”

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., who also serves as the co-chair of the Bipartisan Addiction and Mental Health Task Force, also voiced his support for the new bill, saying in a statement, “Now more than ever, it is imperative that we provide crucial support and expand resources for the millions of those struggling with mental health in our country.”

The new bill also includes language that helps harness mental health insurance coverage through Medicaid, as well as requiring all health insurance plans to cover crisis services, Cárdenas said.

Additionally, it includes a road map to promoting mental heath care jobs by supporting crisis workforce development with increased funding for training and scholarship opportunities, as well as ensuring accessibility to non-English speakers.

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