On July 16 the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline changed from a 10-digit number to the three digit 988. This change was hailed as a milestone moment in this country’s history for suicide prevention, mental health support and crisis intervention, as it increases access to help for those in need. As with any change, there can be accompanying confusion, misunderstanding or misinformation.
For this change to truly increase access, it is important that people have accurate information about how the process works so they will not be afraid to call. Here in Centre County, Centre Helps is the call center for the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Anyone with an 814 area code who dials 988 will be connected to our call center. One of the concerns we are hearing is that calling 988 is more likely to lead to police or other emergency services involvement as well as involuntary commitment or incarceration. The reality is that calling 988 makes it much less likely that emergency services will be involved, for several reasons.
Our philosophy and practice are centered on least invasive intervention. We strive to work with the caller, looking to support them in the ways that they decide are the most meaningful and helpful to them. We only call police or emergency services if there is imminent risk, meaning the caller has indicated that they are going to harm themselves or others. However, 99% of our calls are resolved without involving emergency services and the caller is supported through the crisis and connected to longer term mental health supports.
This outcome is likely because our hotline counselors participate in extensive training. Our staff are trained to handle mental health calls from an intersectional and inclusive lens. Our volunteers provide non-judgmental listening and emotional support, seeking to connect clients to long-term therapy options. In addition, our counselors come from diverse backgrounds themselves, including have lived experience with mental health crisis through advocacy and/or personal experience.
Connectedness is a key protective factor in suicide prevention and our counselors are empathetic and trained in communication skills that increase their abilities to make those critical connections, helping the caller feel less isolated and less alone. Being there on the other end of the line for someone who is thinking of suicide is lifesaving. Research (David Klonsky and Alexis May) shows that connectedness is a key protective factor not just in suicide but in reducing the likely hood that suicidal thoughts will lead to suicidal action. This connectedness also acts as a buffer against hopelessness and psychological pain.
Centre Helps’ mission is to provide equal access to help for every person. We believe that all people deserve respect, empathy and unbiased support in their time of crisis or need and our hotline counselors are trained to do just that. By being there for our callers, we can be a significant protective factor against suicide.
If you or a loved one are experiencing a mental health crisis or suicidal thoughts, please call 988 to get connected to help.
Denise Herr McCann is the executive director of Centre Helps.