Even after their own advisory committee criticized call tracing, leaders of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline have been lobbying government for cutting-edge mass surveillance and tracking technology. Privacy experts are raising concerns.
The new mental health hotline number “988” will roll out across America in July of 2022, pushed by hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding alongside another $2 billion for related mental health services.
Last year, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) awarded control of 988 to Vibrant Emotional Health, the New York-based nonprofit that operates the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPL). That decision has been protested by some, though, because Vibrant demands that its 180 participating call centers implement a controversial policy of covertly tracing many calls. Furthermore, Vibrant has made clear its desire to prevent all other, non-NSPL crisis lines from receiving any 988 calls or related state funding—endangering the survival of any community-based crisis hotlines that are truly confidential.
It took nearly two years of denied interview requests and stalled freedom of information access efforts to wrest data from SAMHSA showing that Lifeline’s covert call-tracing practices affect tens of thousands of callers every year. In November of 2020, Mad in America reported on people who’d had life-upending and often traumatizing experiences when Lifeline conversations they’d been assured were “anonymous and confidential” in fact resulted in them getting visited by police at their homes, schools, or workplaces, and detained against their will in psychiatric hospitals. At the time of their calls, none were intending to or in the process of killing themselves; all were baffled by why they’d been targeted for forced interventions. And indeed, the Lifeline’s “Imminent Risk” and “Active Rescue” policies and training show that calls may be traced for a wide variety of vaguely defined rationales intended to “help” people.
But after another year of freedom of information appeals processes, internal NSPL meeting minutes newly obtained by Mad in America, along with recent federal reports, are still more controversially revealing: As the 2020 Mad in America article was in development, the NSPL began holding internal discussions about call tracing. During these meetings, members of the NSPL’s own Lived Experience Committee passionately criticized the call-tracing policies and practices—leveling many of the same criticisms that would get raised in the article. In response, Vibrant Emotional Health and NSPL leaders promised changes to reduce call tracing.
However, shortly after those meetings, Vibrant/NSPL leaders began lobbying government for direct control over vastly expanded electronic surveillance and geolocation tracking powers—broader powers than even police routinely wield. If implemented, the result will be an unprecedented invasion of Americans’ privacy—the automatic exposure of the personal information and precise physical location of literally everyone who calls, texts, or chats through 988.
Click here to access the supporting documents for this and my previous article on crisis lines.