New 988 Mental Health Hotline Could Start Saving Lives
If someone is having chest pain, they call 911, and an ambulance rushes to the scene to get them the care they need in minutes. But what happens if the pain is emotional? Suicide is the 12th-leading cause of death in the United States, yet mental health has never been taken as seriously as a heart attack.
Americans are reluctant to call 911 for severe depression or other serious mental health conditions, so they have been left to cope mostly alone. In 2020, 45,979 people in the U.S. died by suicide, and 1.2 million attempted to take their own life. The U.S. wants to change those stats for the better.
As of July 2022, all 50 states started rolling out a new National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number, 988, to call for mental health crises. The new mental health hotline hopes to connect people in crisis with local resources with more ease than ever before.
But will it work?
What the 988 Mental Health Hotline Is For
The 988 mental health hotline isn't an entirely new concept. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has been available since 2005. For nearly two decades, callers have been able to reach a crisis prevention counselor by dialing a 10-digit number: 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).
While any organization that provides mental health support is beneficial, having to dial a lengthy number isn't ideal. Most people today don't even have their family members' phone numbers memorized, let alone the number of a hotline they hope to never need.
To solve this problem, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission unanimously voted to instate a new, three-digit number for Americans to dial to reach a network of trained mental health counselors.
The network will rely on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline's existing framework, but it will be much easier to access help than before. As of July 16, 2022, all people need to do is dial 988 for help.
In time, the hope is for 988 to function in the same way as 911 does, only for emotional emergencies rather than physical ones.
Who Should Use It?
Emotional and mental health is finally getting the attention it deserves. While emotional distress doesn't cause physical harm right away, it can certainly do so if left unchecked. People are understandably afraid of potentially lethal diseases like cancer and congestive heart failure, yet untreated depression can be just as deadly.
In the U.S., suicide is the second-leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 34. One doesn't need to be suicidal to need help, either. Up until now, there hasn't been a great option for people experiencing a mental health crisis or those around them to get timely support.
Calling 911 was all a bystander could do, but sending in law enforcement comes with risks of its own. Adverse outcomes during responses to calls for mental health emergencies are not uncommon, and are experienced with disproportionate frequency by people of color.
Additionally, officers are supposed to be trained to assess the individual's acute safety risk and transport them to a medical facility. But in reality, most policers are not really equipped to deal with mental health emergencies.
Police interactions with people dealing with mental health issues often involve physically restraining an individual in crisis with handcuffs. Getting forced into a police car in chains goes against everything we know about successfully treating mental health emergencies. Understandably, many people skip the 911 call and try to manage the situation alone.
988 is for anyone in the U.S. experiencing a mental health crisis of any kind, not just suicide.
You should absolutely call 988 for suicide prevention services, but people are also encouraged to call the new mental health hotline whenever they're in need of emotional and mental health support beyond what can be provided by friends, family and their primary care provider.
Reasons people call emergency hotlines vary, but these are some of the most common:
- Substance abuse struggles
- Economic concerns
- Relationship and family problems
- Challenges due to sexual orientation, like rejection and shame
- Physical, verbal or emotional abuse
- Mental illness, like a bipolar episode or symptoms of schizophrenia
- Extreme loneliness and lack of support
Anyone facing the challenges above or ones like it is encouraged to reach out for help using the new 988 hotline. Family members and bystanders are also encouraged to call for guidance.
If people don't like making phone calls, both text and chat support will be provided for even easier access to resources.
Once a caller reaches a trained 988 counselor, triage, support and nearby resources will be offered. In particularly urgent situations, the counselor can also send out a mobile mental health crisis team to deescalate the situation on-site.
After some initial therapeutic intervention, the individual will be safely transported to a medical facility for further psychiatric evaluation and treatment.
The Concept of 988 Is Great, but Is Our Healthcare System Prepared for It?
At present, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline fields 4 million calls and texts per year. Starting in July, these calls, along with calls from local and regional crisis centers and some 911 calls, have started to be redirected to 988. The growth in volume could result in up to 24 million calls and texts annually by 2026.
Many states lack the resources to support this sixfold uptick. Certain states, including Virginia, Utah, Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Colorado, are establishing or expanding their crisis resource departments. While these states are reasonably prepared to deploy mobile crisis teams and other services to callers in crisis, most others are not.
Until they catch up, callers in crisis may be rerouted to call centers out-of-state, increasing wait time and increasing the likelihood that they'll abandon their calls. Those who remain on the line may have fewer options for effective local care as well.
Still, any support is better than none. The 988 system will take time to reach peak effectiveness, but it's a big step in the right direction.
The New Mental Health Hotline Needs All the Helping Hands It Can Get — Including Yours
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is on the lookout for new counselors for their crisis call centers. Some roles require prior training or healthcare credentials, but many don't.
Those in crisis often need nothing more than an empathetic, caring voice on the line to guide them through their toughest moments. Anyone interested in volunteering or employment is encouraged to apply.
Visit the SAMHSA website to learn how to become a volunteer and what else you can do to help make the new mental health hotline a success.