By Christine Schulz on Thu, Aug 4, 2022
Last month, it became a lot easier for people in distress to get help. After two years of planning, the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (formerly, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) went live July 16.
This national network of more than 200 local crisis centers provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24/7. It’s available through phone, text and computer chat (988lifeline.org/chat). Calls are routed based on area code, and each state has at least one center to handle the calls. (You can check your state’s status at 988lifeline.org/lifeline-state-reports/)
It replaces 1-800-273-TALK, although that number will remain in place. The shorter number aims to provide improved access to crisis counselors. A week after launch, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported that call volume increased by 45% and counselors answered 23,000 more calls, texts and chats than they had the week before transition.
That’s a promising start, and it comes at an especially critical time. Between 2010 and 2020, the suicide death rate increased by 12%, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. In 2020 alone, the U.S. had one death by suicide about every 11 minutes, according to SAMHSA.
Creating something shorter and more memorable than "1-800-273-TALK" is important. However, perhaps even more significant is the expectation that it will ultimately replace 911 for mental health crises.
Offering an alternative to 911
Although the previous suicide hotline did get plenty of use, 911 is the default for all emergencies and is often used for mental health crises. Every year, millions of 911 calls involve a person experiencing an emergency related to a mental health or substance use disorder.
Many times, however, a law enforcement response is neither necessary nor appropriate. "Unlike other medical emergencies, mental health crises overwhelmingly result in a law enforcement response," psychologist Benjamin Miller, president of Well Being Trust, recently told NPR. "If you look at the data from the police, about 20% of their total staff time is spent responding and transporting individuals who are experiencing a mental health crisis."
Moving to 988 lets police and 911 dispatchers focus on what they do best, and it connects callers to someone who can listen and counsel.
Accessing help quickly
The way that first point of contact handles a mental health crisis call often determines whether the incident ends safely. 988 counselors, usually volunteers, know how to make that all-important personal connection with the caller. They are trained to de-escalate situations over the phone and support and share resources and referrals
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) estimates that 80% to 98% of calls can be de-escalated over the phone via crisis lines. The 988 counselors can connect callers in acute crisis to more comprehensive mental health support. Some communities will have mobile crisis teams or other non-law enforcement responses available if an in-person response is needed. On rare occasions, 911 may be contacted.
A positive message that supports mental health awareness
As a mental health organization, Total Brain is thrilled to see that the government is putting an emphasis on supporting mental health—and backing that up with funding. We’re especially pleased to see 988 go live. The transition to a simpler, easier to remember number sends the clear message that mental health is a priority and that supporting those who need help matters.
With this new 988 number, those experiencing a mental health crisis will know that someone will always be there to talk to them in the moment they need it most.
SAMHSA has been clear that the launch of 988 is only the beginning. "In the longer term, the vision for 988 is to build a robust crisis care response system across the country that links callers to community-based providers who can deliver a full range of crisis care services … in addition to connecting callers to tools and resources that will help prevent future crisis situations. This more robust system will be essential to meeting crisis care needs across the nation."
Total Health is a mental health platform that supports behavioral health integration. With digital neuroscience, brain capacities and risks can be measured, improved and managed — just like physical health. We also offer an array of mental health assessments to identify brain strengths as well potential mental health conditions, including one for depression. These are not diagnostic tools; for example, the depression assessment merely suggests that you may—or may not—be dealing with depression. At the end of the assessment, we provide a list of therapists with whom you can book an appointment. If you have an immediate need, call 988.