If you’re having an emergency, you call 911. But what about a mental health crisis? Starting this weekend, you can call 988.
The new, shortened version of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s 10-digit number, 1-800-273-8255, will connect callers to the lifeline starting July 16.
The easy to remember number aims to make the resource more accessible amid a mental health crisis in the U.S. intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic, and experts say it could have an incredible impact.
While a shorter number may not seem like a big deal, this accessibility could make “all the difference,” says Brad Kennedy, chief operating officer at Driftwood Recovery, an addiction and mental health rehabilitation center in Texas, “not just for individuals experiencing suicidality, but for their loved ones who are also less likely to recall complex numbers during emotional distress. It will comfort those struggling with suicidality to know that they can engage in an anonymous, non-judgmental conversation with someone highly skilled in dealing with suicide prevention.”
Suicide survivor Tonja Myles feels this on a personal level. She knows what it’s like to have a mental health crisis and not know who to call.
“When a person is in trauma or they are in a crisis, a lot of things are going on inside of them and outside. Family members or friends that are involved often do not know what to do,” says Myles, who now works as a mental health professional.
Myles says the transformation will be a “game-changer.” When police are dispatched to a 911 call, there’s no guarantee that officers will know how to respond to a mental health situation. This contributes to unnecessary mistakes, confrontations and in the worst of circumstances, death.
“Law enforcement does a great job with what they do, but they are not psychiatrists, they are not social workers, and they are not peer support specialists. When people hear 911, they hear, ‘Yeah, I’m in crisis, but also am I in trouble?’ No, you’re not a criminal, you’re just in crisis. I’ve been there. The fact that 988 is here and it specifically deals with a person who is in a mental health or substance abuse or any type of crisis, I’m just grateful that in my lifetime I get to see that.”
How does 988 work? We break it down, along with more info to know.
Instead of trying to memorize the full number (which will still work), 988 is a fantastic resource, says Dr. Lauren R. Khazem of the department of psychiatry and behavioral health at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
“Folks who live in rural places (or) who may have disabilities preventing transportation, these hotlines are so vital in order to help people develop steps to keep themselves safe in times of crisis,” she says, even for those who already work with a mental health professional.
“Certainly it’s an important resource for people who don’t have access to mental health care services… But as a best practice, in our suicide prevention treatments, we offer the lifeline as a resource to our clients to use, and we encourage them to use it when we are unavailable when they are needing on-the-spot support for intense emotions or intense crises.”
Without proper support, there could be ‘detrimental’ outcomes
Despite the potential benefits, Khazem worries there might not be enough resources in place to handle the influx of calls that crisis centers might receive.
“For folks who are calling in and not being able to have that immediate help, it is detrimental in the sense that these individuals are in crisis and having to wait for support,” she explains, adding that, for some, the lifeline is a “last resort” before going to an emergency room or attempting suicide.
“Inadequate funding for these crisis centers can result in a lack of appropriate timely care,” she says. “Those crisis centers are doing the best that they can with the limited resources they have. But certainly more is needed to have more tools in place to serve more people who are potentially going to be calling and looking for help during crisis.”
Are states prepared? A closer look at whether states are prepared for 988
President Joe Biden’s administration has “significantly increased funds towards the lifeline,” Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, an assistant secretary at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration said last week, with a $432 million initial investment.
But experts say funding is still an obstacle for many states.
“This is really a struggle across the country,” says Angela Kimball, national director of advocacy and public policy at the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “While Congress has allocated some one-time funding and funds for the national lifeline, they have not financed 988 as an entire crisis response system across the country. And so really, it is up to states to step up to the plate and create the funding streams.”
What’s needed next?
Kennedy echoes concerns over call volume, but hopes as time goes on “more people will be able to be trained for these positions and the initiative will continue to expand and grow.”
He views the hotline is a “very positive development” in the overarching conversation around mental health, but knows there’s more to be done.
“We’re finally starting to address some of this country’s unmet mental health needs. However, this is just the beginning, and we shouldn’t expect a hotline change to solve the mental health epidemic immediately. Healing is going to require continuous, systemic change.”
Khazem says it’s crucial that more funding is provided at the national and local levels.
“That way, more staffing, more training, more resources are provided to meet the growing need of folks who use the lifeline.”
Support and funding are also needed in the surrounding communities for those who need additional care. Khazem says it’s hard to make those resource connections for patients if the community mental health areas are underfunded as well.
While this hotline change is a “step in the right direction because it recognizes and normalizes the pervasiveness of suicidality in America today,” Kennedy adds there is “much more room for growth.”
If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) (starting July 16, at 988) any time day or night, or chat online.
Crisis Text Line also provides free, 24/7, confidential support via text message to people in crisis when they dial 741741.
Contributing: Claire Hardwick and Christine Fernando, USA TODAY