LISTEN: The Atlanta Braves will partner with state health officials to create awareness of the 988 crisis line. On May 29, Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Health and Developmental Disabilities Kevin Tanner will throw the first pitch of the Braves home game. GPB’s Ellen Eldridge has more.

Ryan Greenstein (left) moderates a panel with Georgia first lady Marty Kemp and DBHDD Commissioner Kevin Tanner

Ryan Greenstein moderates a panel with Georgia first lady Marty Kemp and DBHDD Commissioner Kevin Tanner offer insights on mental health advocacy and the importance of the 988 suicide crisis line during the Rosalynn Carter Georgia Mental Health Forum May 14, 2024.

Credit: The Carter Center

For Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities Commissioner Kevin Tanner, getting the word out about the new three-digit mental health crisis hotline requires heavy hitters — and word-of-mouth. He'll throw the first pitch May 29 at Truist Park, when the Atlanta Braves take on the Washington Nationals.

Tanner said he is practicing.

"I went to the Little League Park in Forsyth County and found a young man who had a great arm, and he and I played catch," Tanner told GPB. "We stepped it off at 62 feet from the mound to home plate. And we played pitch and catch. And I think I did a pretty good job."

When the topic came up during the 28th annual Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Forum at the Carter Center on May 14, Tanner joked about his chance to pitch 988.

"Let me just say, that's created a great deal of mental health stress for me because I didn't think a whole lot about it," he said as audience members laughed.

Though it did occur to him that he could make his point about mental health and the 988 crisis line another way.

"Well, maybe I need to skip the ball to the plate and then get on the microphone and say, 'You know, it's OK not to be OK. You just get up every morning and play ball.'"

Everyone laughed, but the message is serious.


Mental heath crises are on the rise

In 2021, there was one death by suicide every 11 seconds in Georgia, and, nationwide, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 14 and ages 25 to 34. 

A Braves game flyer

"So those are staggering numbers," Tanner said.

But only 16% of Georgians know about the 988 suicide crisis and access line.

Two years after its launch, more rural Georgians are calling for help than in other parts of the state.

The first reason for the disparity is the obvious lack of resources, Tanner said.

The second part is stigma.

"If you live in a rural community and you park your Chevrolet truck in front of the clinician's office, everyone in town is going to know that you were there," Tanner said. "You can call 988 and remain anonymous. I think that's a big factor in why rural Georgians are calling 988."

The money invested in expanding these and other behavioral health services already helped reduce call response time from 200 seconds to 12 seconds, Tanner said.

More funding, per usual, is needed as staff are still struggling with increased call volume and mobile response time.

About 2,000 times a month, a mobile crisis team of two people, at least one of whom is a licensed clinician, meets callers where they are anywhere in the state.

"The goal, nationally, is to have that mobile crisis team to you in a metro area within one hour, and in a rural area within an hour and a half," Tanner said.


Building a legacy of mental health care in Georgia

Georgia first lady Marty Kemp highlighted during panel the nearly $20 million investment Gov. Brian Kemp made toward behavioral health care, including $16.5 million for more mental health crisis offering emergency care.

While it was noted after Sine Die that the fiscal year 2025 state budget leaves an unprecedented $16.3 billion general fund surplus, Kemp maintains her husband is fighting alongside mental health advocates.

"There is definitely an investment in our state that will help," Kemp said. "But that doesn't mean we're stopping there. I mean, we have to continue on."

Another $1 million each is budgeted to help expand mental health services in child advocacy centers, the Veterans Mental Health Services program, and through telehealth services in schools, Kemp said.

The David Ralston Center for Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities at University of Georgia received $1.5 million.

Tanner said Ralston, the late former House speaker, inspired much of the work state agencies are doing to fund and enforce mental health parity, and he valued his opinion.

Years ago, when Tanner considered taking the commissioner job, he asked Ralston for advice.

"'I said, what do you think, Speaker?'" Tanner said.."Because I served under the speaker, I had a great deal of respect for him and his wisdom and judgment. And he said, 'Kevin, you only get a few opportunities in life to make a difference. And when those opportunities come along, you need to take them.'"

So, when the Atlanta Braves reached out to Tanner about literally pitching the crisis line at the upcoming home game, he had to accept, even if he did so without contemplation.

"They made the offer and asked me if I was interested in doing it," Tanner said. "How often do you get the opportunity to go out and throw the first pitch at the Braves game? So I jumped on that."

Francesca Bently, Malaka Nzinga, and Dimple Desai at the Mental Health Forum May 14, 2024.

Francesca Bently, Malaka Nzinga, and Dimple Desai at the Mental Health Forum May 14, 2024.

Credit: Ellen Eldridge/GPB News


More from the Mental Health Forum

A tribute to former First Lady Rosalynn Carter
Credit: Ellen Eldridge/GPB News

Established in 1995, the Rosalynn Carter Georgia Mental Health Forum hosts service providers, policymakers, advocates, and consumers from across Georgia each May to address timely mental health policy issues facing the state.

This 28th Mental Health Forum is the first after former first lady Rosalynn Carter's death in November 2023.

The gratitude for her life's work was palpable in the conference room.

In addition to the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline discussion, experts assessed the mental health needs of Georgia's veterans and service members.

Morehouse School of Medicine and Voices for Georgia's Children representatives shared best practices in preventing and intervention for Black youth who may be at risk of mental illness.

You can watch the entire conference, including recorded messages from Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, and U.S. Rep. Earl "Buddy" Carter on the Carter Center website.