Michigan’s new mental health hotline, MiCAL, is about more than helping Michiganders through crisis, explained one staffer. It’s about helping them find hope.

ROYAL OAK, Mich.—After a year of anxiety and tumult during COVID-19, one spring morning a Michigander finally accepted their point of crisis and reached out for support. The person they reached out to—who turned their day around—was Brian Nicholson, a Genesee County man.

Nicholson works for a program called MiCAL—the Michigan Crisis and Access Line, a new 24-hour confidential mental health hotline. 

Nicholson remembers the call vividly, as one of the longest and most impactful he’s had working with MiCAL so far. 

“We had an individual with homicidal ideations,” he explained. “They had gotten in an argument with their significant other, and didn’t just have homicidal ideations about them, but anyone who looked like them. It could have been someone at a store or a delivery person.”

MiCAL is the result of Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services teaming up with Royal Oak-based Common Ground Crisis Management to offer emergency mental health services as a hotline, reachable 24 hours a day at 844-44-MICAL (844-446-4225). At the moment, MiCAL is being piloted in the Upper Peninsula and Oakland County, but soon plans a statewide rollout

There was a lot Nicholson had to be cognizant of during that call, he told The ‘Gander. When he asked the caller where they were, he was careful to emphasize that it was to connect them to nearby services, and not to call the police. Preventing the situation from escalating and helping the caller find their way through the crisis were critical to preventing loss of life. 

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Often, he noted, he’ll just ask for ZIP codes, people only need to be as specific as they’re comfortable being, and he can find the resources in their area to provide the services that would give help they were seeking. And this caller was seeking help, which Nicholson was grateful for. That meant that there was a way the situation could end peacefully, and Nicholson could save lives. 

“It wasn’t just the lives of others, but the caller’s life too,” he said. “Given the call, there was a real chance the situation was leading to suicide by police.”

That story ended without violence. Nicholson has since spoken with the caller a few times, and has connected them with mental health services to help them through their experiences. Callers, like this one, often reach back out to MiCAL because the bond forged in their time of crisis can be intense and personal, Nicholson explained. 

“It’s not about getting people from crisis to completion, it’s about getting them from crisis to hope.”

But it isn’t easy work. Nicholson could have never imagined taking that call, or some of the other calls he’s taken, before working on this hotline.

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Situations like helping someone in crisis through suicidal and homicidal ideations can be a lot to process, and people’s lives can be on the line. That doesn’t dissuade Nicholson or his colleagues, but it does mean they need resources to help them through these calls as well.

“We’re all here because we want to help people.” Nicholson said. “It’s extremely rewarding.”

So that means coming up with ways to work together as MiCAL staff and support one another after particularly heavy calls. Nicholson said staff are always there to support one another and MiCAL offers them structural support for processing the situations they encounter.

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“Each day we have a debrief where we can talk about the calls of the day and support one another,” he explained. “We have 70 hours of training on issues like how to talk to people with suicidal ideation, how to talk to people with victims of domestic violence.”

By taking their own mental health seriously, MiCAL staff are better prepared for their mission of not just seeing someone through a crisis, but seeing them connected with the resources able to help them long-term.

More Than a Crisis Line

MiCAL was first launched in April of 2021, and also covers backup services for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline as well as operates Michigan’s warmline, where people who have experienced mental health emergencies or substance abuse act as peers for those currently seeking an understanding shoulder to lean on.

MDHHS works with local communities of mental health to help get a broad picture of resources available around the state, and the MiCAL staff bring local knowledge to the shared understanding of services in their own communities, something Nicholson sees as a strength of their working the hotline remotely. 

“A person from Battle Creek is going to know the resources in Battle Creek,” he explained. 

And of course, being from Genesee County himself, when the statewide service launches in the coming months he’s sure his understanding of mental health services around Flint will be invaluable to the team when a caller from Genesee is in crisis.

That kind of on-the-ground perspective has already been useful during the pilot of MiCAL.

“If somebody calls from the U.P. and says ‘you don’t understand, there’s nothing to do around here,’ if they’re looking for meaningful ways to spend their days, we actually do know, because we have teammates from the U.P. who share those experiences,” he explained. 

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It isn’t just crisis calls Nicholson has fielded. Some calls are simply needing resources and not knowing what’s available, or navigating insurance issues with finding a mental healthcare provider. He explained that because the needs of each caller are different, and the struggles that lead them to reach out are different, having that wide-ranging understanding of available services makes MiCAL a critical asset to Michiganders.

MDHHS further emphasized the importance that MiCAL doesn’t just get people through the reason they called, but follows up and ensures callers are connected with what they need to get longer-lasting assistance. That’s especially important to Nicholson, who recounted how truly isolated some callers are.

“Some of the people we talk to, we’re the only voice they’ve heard all day,” he said.

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