‘Warm’ Hotlines Deliver Help Before Mental Health Crisis Heats Up

Unlike a hotline for those in immediate crisis, warmlines provide early intervention with emotional support that can prevent a crisis — and a more costly 911 call or ER visit. The lines are typically free, confidential peer-support services staffed by volunteers or paid employees who have experienced mental health conditions themselves.

About 30 states have some form of a warmline within their borders, including in Salt Lake City and Omaha, Neb. Still, the loose network of call lines faces no regulation or standardization. They’re relatively new, so they haven’t been extensively studied. And their advocates admit quantifying results can be difficult.

Better known are the suicide crisis lines for those who need help immediately. This summer, the Federal Communications Commission proposed a 988 national hotline number for those considering suicide or having a mental health crisis. Yet mental health advocates say warmlines help fill another important health care gap.

“Warmlines help people who think, ‘I don’t know why I’m not feeling great, or who to turn to, or where to get care, and I don’t know for sure if I even need care,’” said Sarah Flinspach, a project coordinator for the National Council for Behavioral Health, which advocates for mental health care services. “It might be the call that helps someone go back to work that day.”

Warmlines can fill a need in rural communities where access to care is limited or provide after-hours support in urban areas, said Rebecca Spirito Dalgin, who has studied warmlines and directs rehabilitation counseling at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. Advocates say they also can save public money by preventing simmering teapots from boiling over.