Health Matters: What you need to know about the 988 mental health emergency hotline

·4 min read
Qing Yang and Kevin Parker
Qing Yang and Kevin Parker

In the Oscar-winning short film “The Phone Call,” Sally Hawkins plays a crisis hotline counselor who receives a phone call from an elderly widower attempting suicide by overdosing on pills. Despite compassionate listening and meticulous detective work to figure out the identity and location of the caller, she’s not able to save his life during their 20-minute conversation, but the two strangers achieve a deep and empathic connection. The film is fiction and exercises some dramatic license, but the profound effect a crisis hotline can make in someone’s life is very real.

In a study sampling thousands of calls to crisis hotlines, more than half of the callers had made prior suicide attempts and 8% were in the midst of an attempt during the call. With some time and reflection, most of the callers credit the hotline as having something to do with them being alive; talking with a counselor on the hotline decreased their feelings of hopelessness, psychological pain and thoughts about suicide.

In the U.S., the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has received more than 23 million calls since its launch in 2005. Last year alone, it received 2.5 million calls and another 1.1 million texts and chats – and the demand keeps increasing. Suicide is a leading cause of death especially among young people, ages 15-24, taking 45,000 lives annually. For every person who dies by suicide, another 30 make an attempt, and 300 are seriously considering it. Even though the Lifeline can connect 80% of the callers to a counselor within 30 seconds, 15% of the calls are dropped before that transfer is completed.

In July of 2022, the Lifeline received a major upgrade with a new three-digit number: 988. Now branded the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, it’s intended as an emergency line for people experiencing suicidal, substance use, mental health issues or any other kind of emotional distress. People can also dial 988 if they’re worried about a loved one needing support or resources. The new number is easy to remember and quicker to use, although the old 10-digit number (1-800-273-8255) remains functional and connects to the same server.

The upgrade is supported by a $432 million investment by the Federal government. Part of the funding is given to states and territories to build up local resources to staff call centers and provide referral and follow up services. Another part is given to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and Vibrant Emotional Health (formerly the Mental Health Association of New York City, a non-profit that has administered the Lifeline since its inception) to expand network infrastructure and capacity. The vision is to transform 988 into a 911-like service network that is available for anyone at every corner of the country.

When you call 988, you’ll be routed to one of 200-plus community call centers based on the area code of your phone. If a local call center is not available, you’ll be connected to the national backup center. Counselors at the call centers are most likely volunteers who have received standardized training on risk assessment and crisis intervention. Their goals are to listen, understand your problem, provide emotional support, and connect you with resources. Only when there’s a perceived imminent risk of harm, will counselors actively engage emergency responders. Your call is considered confidential, and you don’t have to reveal any personal identifying information, but you should assume that the call is recorded. You can also text 988 directly or reach a counselor via chat at 988lifeline.org/chat.

In the week after the switch, the number of calls to the Lifeline jumped 45%. The volume is predicted to triple over the next year as people become more familiar. While these numbers are frightening, there’s also hope – if we can identify and support young people who are experiencing mental health symptoms, including thinking about suicide, we have an opportunity to help prevent tragedy. By dedicating a 911-equivalent for mental health, this signals two things – we as a country are taking a long-lasting, coordinated approach to address mental health, and we’re trying to erase the stigma and confront suicide, substance abuse, behavioral and emotional distress head on.

Qing Yang and Kevin Parker are a married couple and live in Springfield. Dr. Yang received her medical degree from Yale University School of Medicine and completed residency training at Massachusetts General Hospital. She is an anesthesiologist at HSHS Medical Group. Parker has helped formulate and administer public policy at various city and state governments around the country. He is formerly the group chief information officer for education with the Illinois Department of Innovation and Technology. This column is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. The opinions are those of the writers and do not represent the views of their employers.

This article originally appeared on State Journal-Register: What you need to know about the 988 mental health emergency hotline