Silicon Valley transit promotes mental health hotline
VTA is working with Santa Clara County to roll out advertisements for the 988 mental health crisis hotline on its buses and trains. Photo courtesy of VTA.

    Next time riders takes a VTA bus or light rail train, they will be greeted by a huge mental health awareness campaign.

    The national 988 hotline launched last summer and aims to redirect suicide crisis and mental health distress calls to trained counselors rather than police officers. Santa Clara County is one of two counties in California to have its own crisis call center. County officials said the awareness campaign partnership with VTA is designed to let more residents know to call 988 when experiencing a suicide or mental health emergency.

    “Over the last 10 years, VTA has seen two individuals take their own lives on our light rail system. During that same period of time, there were seven other attempts, which, thankfully, were not successful,” VTA Chief of System Safety and Security Aston Greene said. “What that tells us is that there are people in our community in need of hope and help.”

    VTA spokesperson Stacey Hendler Ross said the campaign rolled out its initial advertisements on buses last month and additional ads will be placed on information cards inside buses and light rail cars. There will be posters at light rail stations and campaigns on social media. She said the advertising will go on indefinitely, in multiple languages including English, Spanish and Vietnamese.

    Ross said campaign efforts began after the Federal Transit Administration earlier this year pointed to suicide as the leading cause of death by public transportation. She said VTA reached out to the county to kickstart an awareness campaign. VTA is not alone in these tragedies. Caltrain experienced 14 deaths in 2022, with the most recent fatality taking place last month.

    Edwin Poon, deputy director of managed care at the county’s behavioral health services department, said the county has worked since last September to raise awareness about 988 through presentations with community organizations and media campaigns in languages including English, Spanish, Farsi, Vietnamese, Tagalog and Chinese.

    “Part of this awareness campaign is also helping people to understand that it’s okay to reach out for help, because we know that there’s still times when people feel isolated because of their mental health challenges,” Poon told San José Spotlight. “This VTA media campaign… it’s a next level kind of strategy where we’re hoping to gain more visibility.”

    Rovina Nimbalkar, executive director for NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Santa Clara County, said raising awareness about 988 needs to be a long-term effort. She said while residents familiar with mental illness may use 988, the general population also needs to know about the hotline instead of automatically dialing 911 whenever there’s an emergency.

    “It has to be a constant reminder,” Nimbalkar told San José Spotlight. “It’s important to know because tomorrow they could be a bystander or a witness to a mental health crisis situation and they (should) know exactly who to call.”

    Nimbalkar said the success of 988 requires more trained mental health professionals. She said enhancing awareness will increase call volume, and callers in crisis shouldn’t encounter delays in accessing services. When Santa Clara County’s 988 call center launched last year, callers were placed on lengthy holds or routed to the wrong call centers, a result of area code discrepancies.

    Poon said the county’s 988 call center is always working on its response times and tracking peak call volumes to determine additional staffing for peak parts of the day. He said last month, the center was able to answer about 93% of mental health calls in-house without rerouting any residents to backup, outside vendors.

    Nimbalkar said seeking mental health services remains stigmatized, and education can break down those barriers. The ultimate goal is to normalize mental health and ensure people can access the help they need, she added.

    “By shifting the calls to 988 to mental health advocates and professionals, we can decriminalize the illness,” Nimbalkar told San José Spotlight. “The ultimate objective is to divert the individual from incarceration or hospitalization, and navigate them towards mental health community services.”

    Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.

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