Michigan's mental health "warmline" offers free peer support during pandemic

The newly established warmline offers help from certified peer support specialists who can speak from their own experiences with mental health issues.

This article is part of State of Health, a series about how Michigan communities are rising to address health challenges. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.

The Michigan peer-run warmline is (888) PEER-753 ((888) 733-7753). It’s available every day from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m.


The COVID-19 pandemic has produced an alarming increase in mental health problems nationwide. But in Michigan, a newly established mental health “warmline” offers help from certified peer support specialists who can speak from their own experiences with mental health issues.


The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) established the warmline in April, using existing federal mental health block grant funding. The project was launched in collaboration with the Justice In Mental Health Organization’s (JIMHO) Project DOORS, Michigan's first peer-run mental health organization. In the warmline’s first month of operation, 22 peer support specialists responded to 2,696 calls.


“We are getting calls from people who have never gotten community mental health services before,” says Pamela Werner, manager of MDHHS Recovery Oriented Systems of Care. “They are also struggling with isolation, staying at home, the fear of being exposed, or of exposing family members. Mental health issues for the general population are now more prominent.”


The warmline was initially established to help the thousands of Michiganders who lost their mental health lifeline when COVID-19 shuttered MDHHS’ statewide network of peer-run drop-in centers. These centers provide spaces where people with mental health disabilities and co-occurring disorders can gather for social support that helps meet their emotional needs.


Certified peer support specialists with their own lived experience of mental illness staff the centers. In addition to directly supporting people with mental health issues, they act as mentors and guide them in accessing resources like housing, employment, and coordinating behavioral health and medical care.


“When the peer drop-in centers had to close, we asked, ‘How could we support the peers that no longer had a place to connect with each other?” says Allen Jansen, deputy director of MDHHS’ Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities Administration. “Larry Scott, [director of MDHHS Recovery Oriented Systems of Care], asked if we could alter how we were spending grant funds to alter the program to do a peer warmline. We thought about it a couple of days and said yes. It was a way to replace something that was closed because of COVID.”


In particular, the warmline supports underserved Medicaid beneficiaries, many of whom already faced social isolation before the pandemic. However, all Michiganders, with or without insurance coverage, are welcome to call in.


“I would say the main benefit is that people are really getting the comfort of being able to call and have someone who is trained, who does not judge, who is really supporting you and helping you understand what is causing your distress,” Jansen says.
Warmline peer support specialist Michelle Odell of Royal Oak.

While 82% of callers just needed someone to talk to for support, help with coping skills, or answers to wellness questions, 17% had a specific issue that required a referral to additional resources. 1% had a serious mental health concern, such as plans to commit suicide or experiencing domestic violence.


“That 1% is 26 people calling with a serious crisis,” Jansen says. “We can’t say for sure if the warmline saved a life or prevented a hospitalization, but that’s really what we’re doing. We’re directing them away from something serious.”


When veterans or active-duty military call in, the warmline’s five specially trained military veterans, including one woman, take the calls. These peer support specialists are in recovery from their own mental illness or post-traumatic stress disorder. They help their peers to recover from their mental health challenges while providing direction in accessing the Veteran Administration’s healthcare system and other community resources available to veterans.


“When people do not have other individuals that they are able to interact with and be around, it leads to depression and anxiety,” Werner says. “People will start to have trouble, for example, not sleeping at night when they are not able to talk to anybody. This takes all the issues they may have and makes them worse.”


The warmline is just one of many mental health services the state has made available to residents during the pandemic. Those who are feeling emotionally distressed because of the crisis can also call Michigan Stay Well Counseling via the COVID-19 Hotline, (888) 535-6136. Michigan Stay Well counselors are available 24/7, and calls are confidential and free. People who would rather text than talk can text RESTORE to 741741.


Those who appreciate a holistic approach to managing COVID-19-related stress and anxiety through meditation, sleep, and movement exercises can visit Headspace, which is normally a paid service, but is currently available to Michiganders for free. For information on services nearby, Michiganders in any part of the state can call 211 or browse through the Community Mental Health Services Program directory online.


The National Alliance on Mental Illness lists mental health warmlines in 39 states, including the Macomb County Crisis Center's telephone crisis counseling, serving residents of that county. Though relatively new, these warmlines were up and running before the COVID-19 pandemic.


“The warmline is helping people dealing with symptoms. It gives people a listening ear and helps them come up with a wellness plan,” Werner says. “Some people will call with a lot of fear. When they hear a peer support specialist on the phone telling them that we’re getting a lot of calls from people feeling like that too, it helps normalize things. What we’re going through, everyone is going through— in other countries and states, and their neighbor is going through it too. People don’t feel like it’s just them.”


Meanwhile, Jansen and his colleagues are hoping to continue the warmline beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.


“The value of what we’ve done here is really clear,” Jansen says. “The notion of a warmline has been really attractive to a lot of members of the community. … I am so proud of what this line has accomplished and the support it has given.”


A freelance writer and editor, Estelle Slootmaker is happiest writing about social justice, wellness, and the arts. She is development news editor for Rapid Growth Media, communications manager for Our Kitchen Table, and chairs The Tree Amigos, City of Wyoming Tree Commission. Her finest accomplishment is her five amazing adult children. You can contact Estelle at Estelle.Slootmaker@gmail.com or www.constellations.biz.

Photos courtesy of MDHHS.