A New Mental Health Lifeline for America 
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A New Mental Health Lifeline for America 

In 2022, James Wright and Tiffany Russell helped initiate a groundbreaking three-digit voice and text hotline, the 988 Lifeline, that enables individuals in crisis to access trained counselors 24/7 via calls, texts or online chats. In this episode, they are joined by Jennifer Battle, the vice president of community access and engagement at the Harris Center, one of Texas’ largest providers for individuals with behavioral health and developmental needs. Together, Wright, Russell and Battle discuss how the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration collaborates with and supports more than 200 crisis centers across the nation, delivering tailored mental health services to diverse communities. The Partnership for Public Service is recognizing Wright and two of his colleagues as finalists for a 2023 Service to America Medals® award. 

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Rachel Klein-Kircher: From the Partnership for Public Service, this is Profiles in Public Service—a podcast that shares the stories of the public servants who work on our behalf every day to make our country safer, healthier and more prosperous.  

We talk to career public servants, emerging leaders, and others to better understand what it means to be a public servant… the incredible variety of careers possible in government… and how public service impacts all our lives.    

I’m your host, Rachel Klein Kercher. 

Katy Hogan: And I’m Katie Hogan. Rachel’s guest host for today’s episode and a senior manager on the partnership’s federal workforce team. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: This season, we have been bringing listeners on a journey filled with stories of federal service and community impact, including both public servants and those who have directly benefited from their leadership and innovation to demonstrate what it takes for our federal government and its wide network of regional partners to effectively serve the people. 

Katy Hogan: For our last episode of this series, we welcome James Wright and Tiffany Russell of the 988 and the Behavioral Health Crisis Coordinating Office at SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: Led by James and his colleagues, John Palmer and Richard McKeon, the 988 and Behavioral Health Crisis coordinating Office. Established a new and simplified three-digit voice and text hotline in 2022, expanding the number of trained counselors who are available 24/7 to address issues related to suicide, mental health, and drug crises. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: With the launch and development of the 988 hotline, the program is changing the way people access important crisis services and enables individuals, especially younger people in crisis, to get help right away with a call, text message, or online chat. The 988 team is being recognized for its incredible impact on the public’s wellbeing as a finalist for the Partnership’s 2023 Service to America Medals program. 

Katy Hogan: James and Tiffany are also joined today by their community partner, Jennifer Battle, the Vice President of Community Access and Engagement at the Harris Center for Mental Health and Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities in Houston, Texas. James, Tiffany, and Jennifer discussed the collaboration between SAMHSA and the over 200 crisis centers across the country that provide direct mental health services to meet the specific needs of a wide range of communities.  

Transition Music 

Katy Hogan: Welcome to James, Tiffany, and Jennifer. We are so excited to have you with us today. To get us started, this question is for James and Tiffany. Maybe James, you can start and then we’ll go to Tiffany. But what inspired you to pursue public service and work for the federal government? What led you to the work that you’re currently doing now at SAMHSA? 

James Wright: Thank you for the you know, the question. I, I think back, I had just crossed 15 years of federal service myself and it was a little bit of happenstance that I was working in a psychiatric emergency department up in Baltimore and a posting came available for federal service. 

I had been in the military, and I wanted to learn more about what SAMHSA really was doing and learned about a position in suicide prevention. And with previous work that I had done prior to I went in and interviewed for a position to help lead in our suicide prevention branch at SAMHSA. 

And looking back at that it really was a catalyst for where we would take, I think suicide prevention over the next decade plus it was relatively new when looking at a lot of different areas of focus from behavioral healthcare. So really the opportunity to link with peers and colleagues that I had been working with and the opportunity to help drive nationwide change really excited me in this career and I’ve stuck with it ever since. 

Tiffany Russell: Compared to James, I am, I’m just a baby in the federal government game. But I’ve been working for local government since 2014. I think the catalyst for me that really made me want to get into local government was the death of Trayvon Martin really just wanted to figure out a way that I could use all the skills and talents that I had in a way that positively affected the community, but also changed the system and the way that I thought that things were working at that time. 

And so, I took a position with the Superior Court of Fulton County and that was after I delayed my entry into law school, which later turned into me not going at all. But there was this opportunity for me to work at the intersection of behavioral health and criminal justice. Two things that I really did not have a lot of knowledge about at that particular time, but it was a unique opportunity to bring my skill sets of, of strategic planning and community engagement, grant writing to the table and really help our court system think a little bit differently about how they were dealing with individuals that have behavioral health conditions in our system. 

And I thought, you know, it, this isn’t directly related to Trayvon, but it, it, it is allowing me to have a positive impact on my community because at that particular time, the jail population 90% of it looked just like me. And so wanting to, to again, just have that positive impact on the community is what led me to my, my work in the local government. 

Jennifer Battle: What led me to SAMHSA was actually through the two years that I spent with Pew Charitable Trust, at that particular time I was the director of, of behavioral health and mental health and justice projects. And we were asking a lot of questions about the responses to behavioral health calls directly related to 911. 

And in having these conversations with stakeholders we heard this, this murmur of something called 988 and we were asking all these questions like, what is 988? I’ve never heard of this before. And what is this about? And in our investigation of trying to understand and researcher trying to understand more and just asking all of these different questions, I just was very curious as to how 988 and 911 would work together to better handle behavioral health calls. 

And I, I think that my current boss heard me at a symposium or at a conference doing a webinar or a presentation about the work that we had done at Pew and reached out to me to ask if I would be interested in being In, in the forefront of the work. Instead of asking the questions on the outside, like, do you want to join the team and help us figure this out? It was like, absolutely I do. So that’s what led me to my work here at SAMHSA. Yeah. 

Katy Hogan: Wow. Thank you both. Those are incredible stories and I’m gonna pass things to Rachel so we can continue to get to know you and your pathway into government better. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: Just listening to the two of you both seizing these opportunities to make change and, you know, working for the 988 and Behavioral Health Crisis Coordinating Office, there’s been so many opportunities and I wish we had 10 hours for this podcast because there’s just a lot that you’ve accomplished. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: So let’s start with James, and then we’ll turn to you, Tiffany. What is one of the accomplishments that you’re most proud of during your time with this work? 

James Wright: Oh, that, so that’s tough. I’m, I’m gonna tell you one that I’m most proud of and one that I love, I love the fact that we’ve been able to unite really crisis centers across the nation in an effort, in a way that is relatively rare and unseen. Meaning not only having a really a passion and a calling for helping individuals but bringing that together to have an access point so anyone at any given time in crisis can reach out and get support. 

 It is just really amazing. So, I’m really glad we’re gonna hear from Jennifer in a little bit to represent one of those centers because they really are the heart and the backbone of 988. I’m really excited and proud of the work that we’ve done to increase our chat and our text response. We have had a historical challenge responding to chat and texts demand. With the transition to 988, our responses drastically improved. Even as of early of 2020. We are between 20 and 30% response in chat at times. 

We are constantly holding at 98 plus percent response in service for chat and text. Now, why is that really exciting? In my opinion is because 80% plus of those individuals on average are youth and young adults under the age of 25. We know that they, per their own report are at high acuity. Over 80% of those individuals identify as suicidal at time of contact or in recent past. Yet however, they have the lowest rate of emergency intervention. I like to think it’s because we’re able to provide a service to an individual the way that they want it, when they want it, when they need it, and they’re getting appropriate care. And more than anything, I’m hoping it changes a generational approach to reaching out for help. And so that’s what I think I’m most excited with right now, of seeing that continue to grow and seeing us continue to reach individuals early on in their lives so we can hopefully see struggling for suicide in crisis. So- 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: And included in this group is also LGBTQ Youth as well. Is that right? 

James Wright: Though that is correct. So much so that we actually worked with the network administrator and worked with the Trevor Project to bring on a service specifically for LGB TQI, youth, and young adults. At the end of September of last year, we were able to provide nationwide services directly for, through our phone, through our chat, and through our texts directly for individuals wanting and meeting LGBTQI youth and Young Adults support directly.  

And so that was a first expansion we had in quite a while in our offerings through through the lifeline. And the demand that has come in has shown how critically important the service it is to offer. 

Tiffany Russell: We were able to publish the report that provides guidance to state jurisdictions and tribal communities about how law enforcement and first responders actually respond through best practices to individuals experiencing a behavioral health crisis and or having a disability. And that report is in response to the President’s executive order on advancing police reform. And so, I, I think the excitement about the fact that we worked with DOJ on putting that report together, it was a, it was a co-written, co-authored report, but it’s also providing states and jurisdictions the opportunities to really learn what are best practices around. Crisis call handling and triage and protocol. 

It also provides them with the resources on how to implement those best practices and how to finance those best practices. It also talks about just responses to, to crisis in general, such as alternative models and corresponded models mobile crisis teams, crisis stabilization services. So I’m really excited that that particular document was completed so that I could actually talk about it on the podcast today. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: And what a, you know, culmination when you were telling your origin story to, to Katie, you know criminal justice, behavioral health, positive impact in communities like, and not going to law school yet here you are and you’re partnering with DOJ and having this experience and having 

Tiffany Russell: Yeah, I mean, okay, well you really just brought that together for me. I don’t know that I thought about it until that very moment. Okay. I’m gonna go in a corner and cry now, but yes, thank you. Like, that’s exactly what happened. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: No, that’s, that’s truly exciting. Congratulations on that. And would this be the first time that SAMHSA has partnered with DOJ in- 

Tiffany Russell: I don’t think this is first time but this is definitely the first time that our office has been involved in, in this process because we’re such a new office. And we also part-, we participated in other sections of that executive order that required reports to be completed as well. 

Different members of our team worked on, on different reports. But I do think that this is like, Probably the second opportunity that we’ve had with DOJ, specifically talking about 988. Because we have been working with them since January about putting together resources and tools for law enforcement on how they respond to behavioral health calls and how they can use 988 as a resource to do that work. 

So I think this is just kind of a continuation of what we’ve been doing since the beginning of the year, but it’s definitely just a, a few pieces of a much larger puzzle that we’re gonna continue to put together on how Samson and DOJ work together around really spreading awareness about 988 and, and crisis, the crisis continuum and IT services more broadly. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: And I know James, another audience that you were able to reach and perhaps not audience, but you know, client base, were those who are not native English speakers. Can you share more about that? 

James Wright:  Yeah. We’ve always had an ability, or as far back as I can remember, to connect through a language line service. For individuals that are contacting into the lifeline we, we have used that to both identify and then provide support. However, we have been able to expand our services, especially for those that are Spanish speaking. 

To include with the, with the transition to 988, and also to include upcoming launching Spanish chat and text services. You know, this is, this is vital to continue to identify areas where individuals are not accessing care or in their preferred modality and trying to improve that through expansion. I, I also want to mention part of the current year’s focuses also launching services for those that are deaf and hard of hearing. Through their preferred modality, which is a video phone and really bringing that through to 988. So as we continue to grow, it’s again, finding out who you’re reaching, who you’re not, by their preferred method, when they need it, where they need it. And we’re super excited to keep working to expand our service. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: And what, what were some of the challenges for all of these accomplishments that you had to overcome? I mean, it’s sounding like you figured it out and it’s happening, but I know it couldn’t have just been flip a switch. 

James Wright: No, it, it definitely was not a flip of switch. You know, let me go back again because when I talk about the crisis centers, I also want to talk about the states and territory leadership, our tribal leadership that we are engaging with currently. It has taken a really a whole, not only a government approach, but also looking at building relationships between the states and between territories and SAMHSA and the crisis centers to communicate effectively on what the 988 service is going to mean in their area and how they’re going to help support. We’ve seen almost every state in the nation drastically improve their ability to respond to Lifeline in 988. 

This came through from the initial push of funding from SAMHSA. If you look at 2021 to 2022, there was an 18 fold increase in funding solely for the 988 launch. That funding went, the majority of it, directly to both administration and the states and territories to go through to the crisis centers to provide workforce support, to answer. 

So it really, from looking at the ability to connect people to their local resources, was really the guiding principle for 988 as we looked at launching. And then also how we would look at helping support those populations again that needed those additional base services. For example, connections to the veteran’s crisis line, LGBTQI youth and young adults, et cetera.  

Katy Hogan: You talked a lot about how important it is to connect to local resources for the success of 988. I’d like to turn things over to our community partner, Jennifer. Jennifer as the Vice President of Community Access and Engagement at the Harris Center for Mental Health and Intellectual and Developmental Disability Services in Houston, Texas.  

Could you share from your perspective about the impact that the 988 and behavioral Health Crisis Coordinating Office has had on your organization’s ability to do your work and serve your community? 

Jennifer Battle: Absolutely huge impact, obviously. Our center has we work for, I work for a large public mental health center in Texas, in Houston specifically. So we’ve had the crisis continuum of care in place here for many years. We’ve been a partner with the previous version of the national Suicide Prevention Lifeline for many years.  

And so, you know, the excitement of what’s happened in the last couple of years, moving from this sort of three digit. Murmurings of a new expanded version of how people can access care was really interesting to me as a longtime provider, but also just, you know, echoing all the things that you’ve heard from Tiffany and James, you know, just figuring what we’ve heard over all the years, right? 

Which is, you know, people may have been hesitant to call a 10, a long, you know, 10-digit number. They can remember it, or they thought they had to be suicidal on a call. So the, the vision around being able to take that feedback that those of us at the center level have been hearing for years and have an opportunity to provide that at the federal level through offices at SAMHSA through the 988 behavioral Health Crisis Coordinating Office you know, was really valuable and it felt very-I felt very listened to. I felt very heard. I felt very respected, and I felt really excited being able to represent the people in my community that we serve. You know, this is what they tell us, and, and we’re able to elevate those voices in a way that, you know, we see that impact now and. In our state, there hadn’t been sort of dedicated specific funding to do this work. 

And so, since the since the 988 work has happened and the funding pieces that James talked about, you know, in Texas, just within the last year, we’ve been able to answer over 107% more calls than we’ve ever answered before on this national line. And you know, that is significant. Those are thousands of people that we’re able to help at a local and regional level, which is just phenomenal. And just in my center, that has equated to 147% increase in the number of people that we’re able to serve since this time last year. So just really exciting work that’s happening here. And a lot more people being able to be served because of the work that’s happening there at SAMHSA.  

Katy Hogan: Wow, the 107% more calls is truly incredible and such a great case for federal governments working with those local partners like yourself. Jennifer, I’d love to hear is there a memorable experience or story you would like to share that demonstrates the impact that you have seen on a person or a group in your community because of the team from SAMHSA? 

Jennifer Battle: Absolutely. Because what I, you know, what I really wanted to talk about was one of my favorite things, the most impactful things that I believe has come out of this. The SAMHSA team recently has been the 988 playbooks. 

And so, you know, again, 988, the 988 team at SAMHSA worked, you know, directly with crisis center leaders from all across the country. Really diverse centers. Small centers, large centers, centers that use paid stops, centers that use volunteers, you know, urban, rural, you know, all of us really coming to the table to share the best practices of, you know, how we do this work. 

And you know, I obviously do this work in my center, you know, here in Houston, but I also sit on the board of the National Association of Crisis Organization Directors and just talking with people all across the country. I’ve heard countless crisis center leaders actually reference these playbooks as critical components as they’ve worked to develop their 988 programs over the last year. And specifically, the one that my center participated in, which I was really excited to do, was talking about those relationships between 911 programs and 9 88 programs. And so, you know, this was, this is, I think, such critical, critical work as Tiffany had mentioned earlier. You know, being able to have these tools and being able to encourage centers to discuss and talk about you know, what’s been working in their various communities has been really, really exciting. You know, we’ve had a 911 diversion program here in Houston for over eight years. And we’ve been able to divert, you know, successfully thousands and thousands of people with mental health needs away from law enforcement response and toward a better behavioral health response.  

And being able to share those lessons learned over all those years through the playbook was really great. And I’ve had lots of feedback from other communities who have used that playbook and have used that feedback to be able to start and design programs like this in their own communities. You know, so that is real impact. And again, thanks to the leadership of the 988 department.  

Rachel Klein-Kircher: So, you’ve made it very clear, Jennifer, the value of this relationship, For your center and with SAMHSA. Was there anything that surprised you in your interactions with the federal leaders from SAMHSA?  

Jennifer Battle: Absolutely. You know. Accessibility, I think, is always something interesting. You know I was always, am always really impressed at how quickly the SAMHSA team responds to my emails or requests for information or support. You know Richard and James have really just made themselves available for the community. You know, they have gone out of their way. When we invite them to come to conferences or to show up at meetings. They come and they show up and they’re present and they talk to people. I mean, it’s hard for me sometimes to even talk to James because he’s surrounded, you know, because people have, you know, so many questions about, you know, or, or have comments or, and I know that he takes that back and I know that that comes back into the office and that those comments and questions that he hears in the field are, are acted on.  

You know, Richard came down to Houston and toured our 911 shop and like, sat with me, sat with my team, sat with our law enforcement, leaderships, and partners, really learned about what we do, and then took that information back to the federal government. 

So, I think that it’s really important when you kind of think usually as, you know, federal organizations as sort of these faceless entities. That, that has not been the experience that we’ve had. You know, John has sat in on, you know, tons of webinars and Zooms, has convened people from all over the country, has had multiple listening sessions. 

But again, you know, I think we’ve all been part of listening sessions where we didn’t really feel listened to. But that has not been my experience with this office at all. And I’ve just been really pleasantly surprised about how personal they do the work and how professionally and respectfully they treat the crisis center leaders.  

Rachel Klein-Kircher: And especially when you know this description of there’s just an array of centers across the country and how many different communities there are, and you can name three specific individuals by a first name of who are showing up and listening and taking the feedback not just from you, but from your counterparts all over the country, which is truly great. 

And what do you think Jennifer, is important for people to know about the reach of the federal government? As you said, sometimes it’s thought of as this faceless bureaucracy but the reach that the government has, to make an impact for individuals, for communities, and often, you know, marginalized communities. 

Earlier we talked about, you know, supporting LGBTQ youth and others. What would you like for listeners to know? 

Jennifer Battle: I think that this is such an important question because I think that the balance between what SAMHSA’s, the federal government, has to do in order to get all the data that they need to report back up to the people who are making decisions and legislation and hopefully providing us the funding that we need to do the work is, has to be very carefully balanced with these type of, you know, special programs. You know? 

The work that we do serving very marginalized folks, you know, LGBTQIA plus folks across the country right now have lots of legislation that is not friendly to them, and so the idea of the trust that has to be built within the local communities, for folks to feel comfortable calling and asking for help at those critical moments, knowing that we are in partnership with the federal government and most in our state governments. You know, there has to be a really fine balance between confidentiality and trust. And so, I think that, you know, what I feel good about is again, that if I ever feel like we’re being, you know, that the, the balance needs. We need more data. We need for more information in order to get you more resources. 

And I can go to James and I can say, yes, we definitely want that. How can we, how can we work collaboratively to make sure that, you know, the community can trust the service and that they know that we’re not asking, we’re not submitting, you know, people’s personal information. You know, to, to anybody that, that’s not the intention of this at all. That confidentiality is, is in place. And that the information that we’re doing to, that we’re sharing with the federal government is really data, you know data that does not have personal identifiers in any way. But that we do need to have those relationships because, you know, the, the reach that we have that’s different working with the federal government, working with SAMHSA and the 988 office, is that they have the ability to really send out directives in best practices in a way that help us. 

Build more trust and build more faith in the, in the professionalism that we can and have. But to do that in a way that feels safe at the local level, I think takes some, you know, pretty strong finesse. So I see that happening, you know, regularly with the communications that we get you know, from James and Richard and John’s team around how to, how to do this very special work with a lot of integrity to the people that we serve, which again, as a social worker, as I’m a social worker, that’s really important to me and makes me proud to work.  

Rachel Klein-Kircher: Incredible how you walk through all of that. And I would love to know from Tiffany, how does it make you feel when you hear about the impact that Jennifer described? And then also, you know, Jennifer touched on this really critical topic of trust and how do you hope to build greater trust in government from communities across the country through your work?  

Tiffany Russell: It’s really indescribable to try to capture with words how it feels when you hear stories from our community partners like Jennifer and, and we hear these types of stories across the country and to know that the work that you’re doing is not just affecting one community, one state, but that you’re doing something that’s impacting the nation. 

And this 988 is such a unique opportunity. It’s such a unique initiative. And I’m not just saying that because I’m on the team, but it’s just so unique because this is really the first time that we’re seeing bipartisan, you know, collaboration about this topic that really everyone is just behind it and wants to see it succeed and wants to be a part of the success and, and it’s, it’s just, I’ve never seen an initiative like this in my lifetime. A public health you know, awareness type of initiative like this in my lifetime. And just to be able to say that you had this mark on history definitely makes it a lot easier.  

It’s just like when you’re feeling exhausted and you’re like, you’re spinning your wheels and then you talk to community partners like Jennifer or James comes to our team huddle meetings and tells us these great stories that he’s hearing from all of these different states about the impact that our funding opportunities are having on them or the, the conversations that they’re having with our community leaders is having, but it’s also something that actually, I, I would want to say that I learned from James when I first got to this team. And the question was, you know, how are we going to get people to really trust this, this line and trust this initiative? And James basically, you know, said at the very beginning, we just have to be transparent. 

And we have to, you know, kind of leave the doors open and let people see what we’re doing. And he was really intentional about making sure that our data around from the be from the time we did implementation, that our data was not only available in public, but posted to the website so that people could really see that. All of the awareness that we were raising, the, the constant requests for additional funding to get, to be able to do more and to provide our states with more funding so that they could, you know, be able to handle the capacity or be able to be at capacity was important. And we are, you know, under a microscope right now because again, this is new and it’s exciting and people want to see that the efforts that they’re putting behind this are, are really going and, and towards doing something and it’s actually having an impact and, and just being transparent is the only way that you can do that. And so, by being transparent and just showing that we-if, if you want people to trust you, then be trustworthy I think is what James used to say. So, like, I, I think that’s really just the answer. 

And, and James, I hope I didn’t take your answer, but I mean, that’s where I got it from. It was if you trusted-you want to be trustworthy, then show yourself that way and be transparent about it. 

James Wright: I, you know, I, I think I, I can’t even count that many, how many times we’ve used the word trust already. And in a time of crisis, an individual really needs to know where to go and where to get support and trust. That support you’re putting your life at times in someone else’s. And, and so 988 at the heart is an ease of access, right? We hope that 988 becomes something as, as well-known as 911 and other services that people know exactly where to call when they don’t know where else to call and they’re having a crisis. And I think that transparency is obviously a cornerstone for that in, in my opinion because you have to show where you are at all times and what to expect of the service as best as humanly possible. 

That not only helps with those individuals that you’re serving, but it helps with those individuals you’re serving with. And I say that, and again, it was so wonderful to hear from Jennifer because I tru-this, I take as, this is, this is a privilege to be able to work on this. I have not seen anything like this in my entire time as a fed or, or even working in behavioral healthcare. This is an opportunity that’s really unprecedented and so I, I take this as it’s a privilege to be a part of this and to help even lead a small portion of it. And really you have to have trust not only again from those that you’re serving, but those that you’re serving with, and know who those people are and have that accessibility both to and from. 

Jennifer may have said early on that I’m accessible, but so are all the centers. They’re a wealth of knowledge. And putting those together tells you exactly what’s really needed most of the time because SAMHSA is not the individuals that is providing the service. It’s the individual sitting behind that phone call or chat that’s there at 2:00 AM on a Saturday morning when an individual doesn’t know where else to go. 

So I, I would say I would just again add on with Tiffany is just, just build trust be open, show what we’re doing, show that not all times, everything works. But that’s okay. That’s why we are working to build the best system we possibly can. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: And this, you know, clearly as I’m hearing it, is a great lesson that other agencies might learn from when they’re working with local communities. Is there anything else that you would want a counterpart at another agency to be thinking about with their work in in communities across the country? 

James Wright: Yeah, I, I, I think a big one. We touched on it a little bit when we talked about Spanish language access and we talked a little bit about those that are from the deaf and heart of hearing community. You know, we are having to go out and really learn from communities about what’s working, what’s not, who’s accessing, who’s not. It was a tremendous win in my opinion that we could more concretely bring on EAPA out of Puerto Rico, who’s helped support a lot of our Spanish speaking response. And we’ve got other centers that have historically provided that response as well. But just watching that grow really came from those individuals needing that care. 

The push behind again video phone services for those that are deaf and hard of hearing relative. For the most part, no one uses the original TTY line to contact through to 988 or the lifelong. And just identifying where you’re not reaching individuals is many times potentially more important than who’s actually contacting in, it’s, who’s not contacting in, and why are they not contacting in? 

So, my recommendation is never just stop at what you’re seeing come through. Never just stop at the populations you are reaching. Always think about who you’re not reaching in the way that they need services. It’s very difficult at times to let a system dictate what the need is when in reality you may not have the resources to do something, but find out what really is either not working or who’s not accessing will be a guiding principle for where you really need to go in the future. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: Sorry, I’m actually-I’m pausing cause I’m kind of having an emotional response to that answer. Thank you for that, James.  

Katy Hogan: Yeah, that was beautiful. So, part of the Partnership’s mission is to inspire the next generation to serve. And James, you said you feel privileged to do the work that you do. I, I think we all relate, but I especially feel privileged that I get to work to inspire the next generation to serve. So, I, I work on a team that oversees what’s called the call to serve network.  

We have over 1200 career advisors and faculty who work to get students thinking about federal careers. We offer internship programs. We’re actually about to host over 240 interns and federal internships this summer, and we’ll be welcoming them in just a couple of weeks. And we go all over the country to visit college campuses and, and spread the word about federal service and hopefully inspire students to, join you all in what you do. 

So, with all of that in mind, we are always telling the stories that are so incredible like yours, of federal government. Why might you suggest someone, these students, these interns, why might they consider pursuing a career in public service? We can start with Tiffany and James, and we’d love to hear from Jennifer, our community partner as Well,  

James Wright: Well, I, I actually am asked this question quite, quite a bit. And because people are like, you work for the government. Why do you work for the government? And I, I think I am lucky because I, I truly am passionate about the work in which I do. And some people may say, well, 988, that’s behavioral health. 

And then I’m the first to ask you, well, what does it that you do? And someone might be, I’m an IT consultant, I’m an accountant. I’m-and I’m like, oh, you realize we have those people on our team. Oh, you realize that? Yeah, you, you can easily be a part of this. In almost every federal agency, you can find someone that works in almost every field that you can think of. The opportunities are endless and public service truly is that it is public service. You get to serve for the greater good, and I, I really do. Again, I, I, I encourage people to, think about what their passion is and then really work to match that passion in an area that will continue them on. I know this is an old saying, but I grew up hearing it every day by my dad, and I’ve repeated it so many times. 

It’s one of those things I’m like, yep, there’s my dad in me. But he would always tell me, if you, if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. And I love what I do and I feel privileged every single day to come in and I think there’s always going to be a point in service if you really know where to go. 

Now, it’s not always easily accessible and understandable. I can give you that because it is a very large bureaucracy as you would imagine. But I guarantee you there’s a place somewhere for you. So regardless of what your role is, regardless of where you’re employed, I think you’ll be surprised how you fit in in a lot of areas that can make some very meaningful difference in the nation.  

Tiffany Russell: See, that’s where we let James go first because he gives great answers like that. I think when we talk to people about why they do what they do, or what they, the, where they receive the joy in the work that they do. You know, you would, you would often think, oh, it’s about how much money you make, or work life balance and all of these different things. 

But it, it seems like the answer is always about the impact that they can have and, you know, being able to work at the federal government, especially at this particular time and in this particular space of being on the 988 team, I just don’t know that. There’s ever been an opportunity in my entire career, and I’ve been working since I was 15 and I’m 42, that I have been able to say that I’ve been a part of an initiative that is literally going to change the trajectory of how we do something for generations to come. 

I think that maybe the people who developed 911 might be able to say that, or you know, whoever it was. At, you know, that developed Apple and created the iPhone. Just knowing that they completely changed the way people think about something or a service or a product. And just to be able to, to say that, you know, years from now that I was working on that team that, you know, was a part of the implementation of 988 or, you know, talking to my colleagues at SAMHSA about knowing that, you know, they are sitting on. 

You know, sitting and working in agencies that are transforming and changing the way that we’re talking about behavioral health and substance use and suicide prevention and that because it’s such a, a topic that everyone’s so interested in and behind, that you’re literally at the cusp of just like transforming a system. And just to be a part of that and like, you know, who wouldn’t want to do that and who wouldn’t want to be a part of that in any way possible, whether they’re the accountant or the IT person or the director, or, you know, working on network operations, like who wouldn’t want to be able to say that that’s what they, you know, were, are a part of and what they do every day. 

Jennifer Battle: I think all of this. And then also keeping in mind the people in the direct services components, right? All of the work that’s being done at the federal government level in these large systems. And then remembering that the people who are answering all those texts that that James talked about in answering all those calls and doing all those mobile crisis responses. So again, even, you know, working in that continuum of care, you have the, you know, the really good planning level work that’s happening at Samson. And you have those of us in the local centers in the field who get the opportunity to, you know, get out there and, and see the clients and talk to folks that benefit from. 

The funding that y’all generate and the best practice models that you send down the chain for those of us at leadership levels at the states level, and regional, and local communities and counties to do that work. So we are so appreciative. 

Rachel Klein-Kircher: We want to thank all three of you, not just for participating in this podcast, but James, Tiffany. Jennifer, the work you’re doing is literally lifesaving, and as you said, this is an unprecedented initiative and we’re just grateful that you’re here. You’re doing what you do every day and thank you for sharing this with us. 

James Wright: Thank you for having us. 

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Rachel Klein-Kircher: Okay. So Katie, I think my favorite moment had to have been the one that just caught me speechless when James was giving advice to other agencies and they work with communities and when he said, “who is not contacting us? And why aren’t they? Don’t just stop at what you are seeing and don’t let the system dictate the need”. That just blew me away. 

Katy Hogan: Yeah, it was truly incredible knowing that there are more folks that they can reach and who they can impact. And like you said, just not stopping at what they see coming in a true public servant inspirational. And I was so honored to ask that question at the end. You know, why do you do the work that you do so we can take that to the students and the career advisors that we work with and hope. Recruiting the next generation, but that, that one’s going to be hard to bottle up and deliver with the same emotion that he did. That was incredible.  

Rachel Klein-Kircher: It was, and you were the perfect person. All the work that you do with colleges, universities, and students to get them excited. And James, wow. Like our poster child for saying the things that we always say, you can be any career possible, any occupation, and there’s a place for you in government. 

Katy Hogan: We always say that on our campus visits that there’s a place for anyone in government, as he said, they need accountants, contract specialists, physicians, nurses, public health specialists, program managers. I mean, I could keep going, but there’s a place for everyone in government and I think that’s what is truly exciting. 

Katy Hogan: And then there’s a place for anyone who really wants to make a difference. And I think that’s what these guests really conveyed. They are making an incredible difference. They are innovating government. They- I was so moved by how closely they work with local partners, not even work with, but listened to. 

Katy Hogan: The fact that Jennifer said, you know, I feel like we’ve all been to listening sessions where maybe we don’t feel like anyone is listening. And there, I mean, she feels heard and there is clearly proof. I was also blown away by the 107% more call statistic as a result of the collaboration and the funding and the efforts between the local partner and the federal government. I mean, that’s just wow.  

Rachel Klein-Kircher: Yeah, I felt like she really broke it down and made it clear how communities are being supported by government. Like I felt like that came across loud and clear. She said without the funding we couldn’t do it. Which yes, money seems, you know, more obvious, but then she broke it down into the steps and how they actually work together and how they collaborate. 

And then it was so perfect when she talked about the trust piece and that just fed into what, you know, Tiffany then drew from. It’s just so incredibly important when you have all these different stakeholders. They’re not-people aren’t going to necessarily trust messaging because it comes from someone who says, listen to me, trust me, I’m doing this for you. It has to, there has to be evidence that there are being listened to and that I have a different need from my neighbor next door. What are you doing about that? And here they are listening and actually demonstrating that. Yes, we hear you. 

Katy Hogan: Absolutely. And that the local community, as you’ve, I think, expanded on typically knows what their community needs best. But to have that, that system or that like wide reaching resource and support that the federal government is able to offer in this instance is, is critical because those things would be hard to deliver at the local level. The fact that it can be offered from that systems level, but then customized to what the community needs is truly what it’s all about.  

Rachel Klein-Kircher: And it also sounds like even though this extraordinary accomplishment is happening, they’re never done right? Like James talked about the chat feature, the text and chat, and the Spanish language and other accessibility components. And it’s like, but wait, there’s more. Right? So I can see like the vision being as many needs as there are in Those are, we want to meet them all. So the-even though all of this work has been done, there’s still a lot more to come and they sound all in. 

Katy Hogan: All in. I also was really struck and I think it’s an important nuance to mention. So Tiffany, I laughed when she referred to herself as I’m still a baby in the federal government. But in looking at her background, I think she’s a really incredible example of the importance of considering federal government, even if you aren’t at the start of your career pivoting into the federal government, even if you, you do have years of experience, right? 

And I think the, the experience and knowledge that Tiffany clearly brings to this role from her previous work in other sectors speaks for itself. But just for anyone listening that maybe. You know, thinks, oh, I wish I would’ve started my career in government. I think Tiffany’s a really great example, that it’s never too late and that you are still extremely needed and valuable in government.  

Rachel Klein-Kircher: I’m really glad you picked up on that. I, I do think that’s such a success story and the fact that she was like, ah, it didn’t even occur to me that I pieced together all of my skills and strengths and interests and found a home doing this work. And you’re right. It is never too late. So I just, I’m really glad that you were with me for this conversation, Katie, especially with your lens about bringing others into government and inspiring them to serve, I, I really, I love the pieces that you picked up on, so thank you so much. 

Katy Hogan: Oh my gosh. Thanks, Rachel, for having me. They were incredible guests, incredible story of the federal government, and I can’t wait to bring it to campuses and to our call to serve network. 

Transition Music 

Abigail Alpern Fisch: So that’s our show, thanks so much for listening! If you haven’t already, please follow or subscribe to “Profiles in Public Service” wherever you get your podcasts.  

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“Profiles in Public Service” is created by the Partnership for Public Service.  I’m, Abigail Alpern Fisch, our writer and producer for today’s episode. 

Our script supervisor is Barry Goldberg.  

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See you next time!