The number of people calling the Multnomah County mental health crisis has been growing – particularly during October.
Last month, there were close to 4,900 calls, and, in the two previous months, more than 5,000 people called the hotline.
What’s unclear is whether the 15 billboards throughout Portland have played a role in increasing the call volume.
Dave Austin, the county’s spokesperson, is cautious to say whether they’ve made a difference. “Those signs went up September 19. It takes about a year for something to be in place before you can study the numbers.”
The 24-hour crisis line, 503-988-4888, provides counseling, mobile outreach, service referrals, assistance finding mental health providers and non-crisis oriented community resources. People could be diverted from going to jail or the emergency room, which in turn saves money.
That phone number will remain on billboards until at least mid-November. “We want to continue these as long as possible,” Austin said.
The county, which paid $6,000 for the billboard time, is uncertain whether it can continue providing this service after November.
If the billboard marketing campaign proves successful, hospitals and social service organizations will be asked to support the effort by making contributions to offset the costs, said Jason Renaud, secretary of the Mental Health Association of Portland.
“They remind people, ‘here’s the place where you can call,’” he said. “Like all other ads, it needs a lot more repeated showings, different placement. Hopefully, the calls will increase.”
Calling 911, he said, often gets the police involved, who are inadequately trained and unable to deal with people suffering from extreme mental illnesses. Renaud pointed to the 2003 fatal beating of James Chasse, a mentally ill man, and the 2010 shooting deaths of Aaron Campbell and Keaton Otis, both 25-year old African Americans who suffered from mental illnesses.
One benefit of the crisis line is to help people learn which services are available. “The goose chase doesn’t happen” of calling different places and trying to find the best fit, Renaud said. “The uncertainty of the goose chase—that somebody told me that there is something somewhere—is the terrifying part [of a mental health crisis].”
The billboards are an enormous benefit to making people aware of the crisis line, he said. “It’s very hard to find this phone number on the county’s website. It’s not intuitive, unless you are a psychiatric social worker, or have this number on your refrigerator.”