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Record demand for 988 suicide prevention, mental health hotline

In its first 6 months, the 988 crisis line has fielded more than 2 millions calls

SHARE Record demand for 988 suicide prevention, mental health hotline
A man uses a cellphone in New Orleans.

In this Aug. 11, 2019, file photo, a man uses a cellphone in New Orleans. In its first six months, the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline number, 988, has fielded more than 2 millions calls.

Jenny Kane, Associated Press

In July, the U.S. got a three-digit Suicide and Crisis Lifeline number, touted by its advocates as easy to remember during a mental health crisis — and quick to respond to saves lives.

In its first six months, more than 2 million people in crisis have availed themselves of the service, using phone calls, chats and text messages which funnel to local mental health crisis centers. The line is free, confidential and operates all the time.

“Launched in mid-July last year, the 988 number is modeled on the 911 system and is designed to be a memorable and quick number that connects people who are suicidal or in any other mental health crisis to a trained mental health professional,” as NPR reported.

The push for an easy-to-remember number was accomplished after years of planning and negotiating, as the Deseret News noted of the transition from the 10-digit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on July 16.

High volume

The need has been critical, the article said. “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2020 there were twice as many suicides in the U.S. as there were homicides — more than 45,979 suicides compared to 25,576 homicides. Suicide was the No. 2 cause of death for adolescents ages 10 to 14 and adults ages 25 to 34, and the third-leading cause of death for teens and young adults.”

The CDC said suicide rates rose 30% between 2000 and 2018, then declined in 2019 and 2020, which the public health agency said works out to one death by suicide every 11 minutes. “The number of people who think about or attempt suicide is even higher,” CDC reported, with an estimated 12.2 million Americans “seriously” considering suicide, 3.2 million planning to do so and 1.2 million who took action to end their own lives but did not die.

The federal government says that “for every one person who dies by suicide annually, 316 people seriously consider suicide but do not kill themselves.”

Per NPR, “Federal data shows that the Lifeline responded to 154,585 more contacts — including calls, text messages and chats — in November 2022 than the same month the year before. The number of abandoned calls fell from 18% in November 2021 to 12% last November.”

Besides that, the average wait time to reach a counselor dropped from nearly three minutes in November 2021 with the old 10-digit system to 36 seconds this past November, NPR said.

“We are serving more people, and we are serving them faster,” Kimberly Williams, president and CEO of Vibrant Emotional Health, which administers 988, told The New York Times. “We have made it far easier for people to reach out and access the support they need and we are promoting help-seeking behavior through this easy three-digit number.”

Since a national suicide prevention lifeline was first initiated in 2005, 988lifeline.org says that experts have fielded more than 23 million calls from people in crisis.

Dr. John Palmieri, a senior medical adviser to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and 988’s deputy director, told the Times that among those under age 25, texting has been a popular way to access the help.

The chatline can be reached at 988lifeline.org.

Palmieri told the Times that the hotline will soon support chat and text services in Spanish and it will be possible for deaf and hearing-impaired individuals to use video with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

States report that the calls from people in crisis have increased with the advent of the three-digit system. Bridge Michigan said that calls from that state’s residents increased 15% since 988 began to take calls and said the state expects to answer those who reach out within 20 seconds.

There’s a challenge, though: “Finding therapists and other professionals to handle acute cases reported by callers.”

A bit of history

According to the Deseret News, “Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, and Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., introduced the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act in 2020. The bill passed the House and Senate and was signed into law by President Donald Trump in October 2020.”

At the time, Moulton predicted that the new number would “save lives on day one.”

The Veterans Administration has long administered a crisis line for veterans through the national lifeline — and still does through the 988 number. After calling 988, those trying to reach the veterans’ crisis line should press 1.