Commentary: Strengthening Marylanders’ lifelines to crucial services
By Quinton Askew
The writer is president and CEO at Maryland Information Network/211 Maryland, a nonprofit that powers the 211 system in the state.
During this General Assembly session, a pivotal topic that warrants our collective attention is the significance of the 988 and 211 dialing codes. These numbers are more than just digits; they represent a lifeline, connecting Marylanders to crucial services in times of crisis. To meet the community’s growing needs, we need integrated and sustainable financial support. 988 and 211 are imperative for the well-being of our community.
The launch of 988 marked a significant stride in mental health advocacy, offering immediate, nationwide access to crisis counselors. This service stands as a shining light of hope, offering an easily accessible lifeline for individuals facing mental health challenges. Maryland’s 988 network was able to respond to over 50,000 calls last year, and most of those calls are resolved over the phone.
211 Maryland’s prevention services cover a broad spectrum, from mental health resources and housing assistance to substance use programs and unemployment benefits. In 2023, 211 answered more than 390,000 calls, texts, and chats from Marylanders in need, connecting them to a number of services, but very often to the things that we all need the most like shelter, food, and utility assistance.
Think about how stressful it is for individuals and families to worry about where their next meal is coming from or if they can keep the heat on this winter. The services and resources residents can access through 211 are foundational in preventing crises. By addressing issues at their root, 211 helps mitigate the escalation into more severe emergencies that would necessitate a call to 988.
211 also leverages its existing infrastructure to connect Maryland resident to mental health resources through our care coordination partnership with hospitals across the state, which helps emergency room patients find local behavioral health services, innovative programs like 211 Health Check, and texting programs. Health Check, a first-of-its-kind weekly mental health check-in program, connects individuals with a caring and compassionate trained professional. In 2023, 211 made nearly 22,000 calls to support participants’ mental health. Those weekly check-ins prevent crises.
In addition, 211 Maryland’s MDMindHealth/MDSaludMental services offers ongoing, supportive text messages in English and Spanish for adults. And the related MDYoungMinds text message program offers a vital lifeline for teens and adolescents seeking mental health support, delivering supportive and encouraging texts directly to young people and providing them with a discreet and easily accessible form of assistance. These ongoing messages also reinforce the availability of immediate support through 988.
Both 988 and 211 are already working together to support the needs of Marylanders. 211 call center partners, where cross-collaboration is already in effect. However, these centers, along with our 211 Maryland United Way Call Center, require further financial support to adequately meet the growing demands of people seeking assistance.
As we move forward, the focus of the General Assembly must be on ensuring a seamless connection between these two vital services. Coordination between 988 and 211 can create a comprehensive support network, guiding individuals to the appropriate level of care and resources. But for this to happen, sustained funding and infrastructure development are crucial.
The capacity and infrastructure of 988 and 211 need continuous support to operate effectively. This is not just a matter of maintaining current levels but scaling them to meet growing needs. As our state progresses, so does the complexity of the challenges faced by our residents. We must anticipate and prepare for these challenges by bolstering the very systems designed to tackle them.
Maryland’s commitment to these services reflects our collective acknowledgment of the importance of mental health and crisis prevention. By ensuring these services are adequately supported, we reinforce our social safety net and affirm our dedication to the well-being of every Marylander.
The importance of 988 and 211 cannot be overstated. They are the front line of our state’s mental health and crisis prevention strategy. They provide more than immediate solutions; they offer hope and a path forward for those who feel lost. As Marylanders, we have a collective responsibility to ensure these services are always available, robust, interconnected, and adequately funded.
As legislators convene, we must advocate for the strengthening of these vital services. The connection of 988 and 211 is not just about maintaining two separate helplines: it’s about weaving a stronger, more resilient fabric of support for our communities. Our goal for Maryland should be clear: to ensure that every individual has access to the help they need when they need it the most. This legislative session presents a critical opportunity to bolster that promise.
Together, we can make a difference — one call at a time.
Editor’s note: Gov. Wes Moore (D) has declared Sunday to be 211 Awareness Day.