Imagine it’s a nice summer day and you’ve taken your family to a lake. Suddenly one of your family members runs into trouble while swimming and obviously needs assistance. You call for help. There are numerous lifeguards around so you’re confident one will come to your aid.

Your confidence starts to fade however, when you hear the responses.

Lifeguard A: Sorry, that’s not my section of the lake. Try asking Lifeguard B or C.

Lifeguard B: Sorry, I don’t work with people in that age range, but I think Lifeguards D and E might.

Lifeguard C: Do you need a flotation device, a boat or a raft? Will you need mouth-to-mouth or CPR? I have to know what you need before I can help you.

Lifeguard D: I can only help people who have fallen out of boats, not those who swam too far from shore. Lifeguards A and E can probably help.

Lifeguard E: I can only respond if the drowning person requests it. Here’s a form – can you get them to sign it?

By now your panic is growing as your loved one’s situation grows more desperate. You plunge in despite your limited swimming ability. If you manage to get to your loved one, you’re exhausted by the time you get there. You struggle to keep your family member above water, but you’re being dragged down yourself. Now you both need assistance, but there’s no one to call for help on your behalf…

 

Obviously this would never happen to someone in danger of drowning. Yet this precise scenario routinely occurs when we seek help for a loved one with a serious mental illness. Agencies say help is available if we just ask, but (a) we don’t know who to ask; (b) we don’t know what’s available, and; (c) we don’t always know exactly what is needed.

The onset of a serious mental illness plunges the whole family into crisis. We’re feeling confused by the bizarre manifestations of the illness, we’re struggling to protect our loved one (and convince them they need protection) and teach ourselves the legalities and the jargon. Now, we’re presented with the additional burden of spending hours or days on the phone and waiting for callbacks only to get yet another number to call. While the agencies and their staff are sincerely trying to help, it seems that our problems are compounded by the sheer multitude of help lines and agencies.

We need an appropriate response, not endless referrals. As it stands, the only agency that must respond (i.e., not simply refer to another agency) is the police. This fact contributes to the criminalization of mental illness. If we could get help before the police are needed, the savings to police costs alone would more than make up for the cost of an integrated service.

Here’s an idea: what if there was one number to call for all mental health concerns, where someone would listen to what’s going on and then respond accordingly? Think of this as a pre-911 phone number – a single number to call before the situation turns into a crisis of criminal proportions. Operators would be knowledgeable on all aspects of mental illness and know who to contact on your behalf. This would be a rather large undertaking, but the savings incurred by no longer duplicating service would mean a more efficient, effective service for those who need it.

People in crisis need a life line, not another help line. Can we work together to make this happen?