988 is just three numbers. But those three numbers could soon help save a life.
In July, 988 will be the new three-digit number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Starting July 16, individuals across the nation can call or text 988 to get support when in a suicidal, mental health or substance use crisis.
But although the number — now coined as the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline — is new, the services offered with it will remain the same.
"We know that three digits is just going to allow people to access behavioral health so much quicker and it'll be a more simple process," said Caroline Crehan Neumann, the crisis services coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
The new number, created through the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act, has been years in the making. It couldn't come soon enough, experts say.
In 2005, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline received 46,000 calls. In 2020, 2.4 million calls were answered by the lifeline.
Wisconsin's call center, operated by Family Services of Northeast Wisconsin, averages around 28,500 calls each year. The problems its aims to address are growing. The suicide rate among Wisconsin residents increased by 40% from 2000-2017, according to state data.
With the new number also comes federal funding to increase staffing at the state's lifeline center until call capacity needs are met.
"This act is not necessarily creating a new service, it's making the service that is already available significantly more accessible, more easy to remember, more open and equitable for people all over the place," Crehan Neumann said during a planning session for the rollout.
The Suicide and Crisis lifeline is available by phone, online chat or text
Individuals can call, text or use an online chat tool to access the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.
When someone calls the lifeline, an automated message first takes the caller through some prompts, asking if the person is a veteran or Spanish speaking.
The person will then be connected with a counselor who is trained in mental health and substance use crises, de-escalation and mental health diagnoses.
"Every call is going to look pretty different in terms of what you're going to discuss but a lot of people walk away feeling comforted and supported," Crehan Neumann said.
Counselors focus on de-escalation and giving callers coping skills. Individuals often the phone call with local resources to access as well.
If someone is expressing thoughts of suicide, the counselor will ask for the person's consent for a follow-up call. That's an important step to save lives and make sure people feel supported, Crehan Neumann said.
The vast majority of callers stay within the realm of the lifeline, Crehan Neumann said, meaning 911 doesn't need to be contacted.
In 2020, 2.4 million calls were answered by the lifeline. Emergency dispatchers were contacted for just 2% of those calls.
The same services will apply over text (starting July 16) and on an online chat portal at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Hotline counselors will help connect callers to therapy, substance abuse treatment and more
Even though Wisconsin has only one call center, the center has a contract with 211 Wisconsin, meaning all counselors have access to local resources to hand off to callers.
If a caller needs a local therapist, the lifeline counselor can locate therapists where that individual lives. The counselors can also help individuals access resources to help with housing, financial needs, domestic abuse issues, substance use treatment and more services where they live.
There are several organizations and resources aimed at preventing suicide deaths and suicide attempts in the Milwaukee area, many highlighted through Prevent Suicide Greater Milwaukee.
Andrea Nauer-Waldschmidt is the psychiatric crisis services coordinator at Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Services and the co-chair of Prevent Suicide of Greater Milwaukee.
Nauer-Waldschmidt said Milwaukee County has had continued conversations with the state to ensure streamlined access when the new number goes live. She's optimistic that the number will help prevent suicide deaths in Milwaukee County.
"I think it's going to be great to have a three-digit number that's easy to memorize, and individuals will recall that," Nauer-Waldschmidt said.
Milwaukee County partners with the Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers, which offers behavioral health services, mental health and substance use assessments, medication evaluation, counseling, peer-support services and more.
In Waukesha County, many callers could be directed to the Waukesha County Department of Health and Human Services.
Waukesha County staff have been planning for the new number rollout for over a year.
"I see 988 as being very helpful for the community that we would already be engaging with, the members who are having a mental health crisis, as a resource," said Jennifer Wrucke, coordinator for crisis services for Waukesha County Health and Human Services. "I think it's going to be a very fluid process and an additional resource for the community."
In addition to its suicide prevention work, which includes mental health screens and connecting people to crisis workers, in 2021, Waukesha County began embedding a full-time mental health worker within the Waukesha County Sheriff's Office.
In that program, a licensed clinical social worker and certified substance abuse counselor arrives on scene with an officer if a person is suicidal. She asks that person about stressors, does a risk assessment and helps that person make a plan for their safety.
Milwaukee also has three Crisis Assessment Response Teams on duty in the city. The teams of officers and clinicians are designed to address mental health calls, defuse possibly volatile encounters and connect people to other resources, rather than offering the standard law enforcement responses of citations and arrests.
Suicide Prevention Lifeline will see an increase in calls, experts say
In the first year of implementation, the state estimates the lifeline will receive 55,500 calls. That's an increase of about 93%.
The state is also estimating an increase in the chat and text functions of the lifeline after the rollout. The number of users will likely increase year by year, according to Crehan Neumann.
But state experts believe the federal grant for added staffing will help with the increase. It's also possible the grant could be used to build more physical space for the Green Bay call center if needed.
Experts don't think the added call volume should be a concern for those wishing to use the lifeline.
"Don't be discouraged because you think there may be a big call volume ... to take that opportunity to call and to reach out," Nauer-Waldschmidt said.
Mental health problems have steadily increased in the past several years
There are multiple reasons for the increase in calls to the lifeline over the last several years, according to experts.
One of the primary drivers of that increase over the past couple years has been the COVID-19 pandemic, which had a negative impact on the mental health of many, including children.
Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found from March to October 2020, mental health-related emergency department visits increased 24% for children ages 5-11 and 31% for those ages 12-17.
A 2020 survey facilitated by the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago found that 71% of parents said the pandemic had taken a toll on their child’s mental health, and 69% said the pandemic was the worst thing to happen to their child.
Even so, calls to the lifeline were increasing before the pandemic even began.
And the reasons people call the lifeline are different for every individual, Nauer-Waldschmidt said.
"This is just bigger than mental health," Nauer-Waldschmidt said, and can include issues like food and housing insecurity.
Suicide is increasing among minorities and younger people
Often, individuals don't know about services that are available until they're needed, so mental health professionals have been working to increase awareness about those resources before someone is in crisis.
Continuing to adapt and evolve services and treatment is an important factor to combat the increase in demand for mental health services, Nauer-Waldschmidt said. That includes increasing education to the community about suicide prevention and what services are offered in a community.
Nauer-Waldschmidt said the county is working to make services more accessible, break down silos between agencies and find gaps in services.
It's also important to focus prevention efforts on high-risk populations, according to mental health experts.
In Milwaukee, data shows increases in suicide attempts and deaths by suicide in BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) communities. Suicide is also among the top causes of death for young people between the ages of 10 and 34 years old.
If you or someone you know is dealing with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 (soon to be 988) or text "Hopeline" to the National Crisis Text Line at 741-741.
Milwaukee County 24-hour crisis line: 414-257-7222. When needed, a mobile team can meet adults and adolescents anywhere to talk and connect them to resources.
Waukesha County's 24-hour crisis line: 262-547-3388.
Pathfinders 24-hour local line for youth in crisis: 414-271-1560
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233
HOPELINE: For emotional support, text "Hopeline" to 741-741
IMPACT 211: Call 2-1-1 for information and referrals to a wide range of community services
Sixteenth Street: Call 414-672-1353 to set up an appointment with a mental health provider
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline will become 988 in July 2022