988 suicide hotline launches in time of need

Scott WaltersThe National Suicide Prevention Lifeline will expand to receive calls or texts sent to the newly created 9-8-8 emergency number. The shortened, easy-to-remember number is a means to connect directly with support for anyone who is experiencing any form of mental health-related distress — thoughts of suicide, emotional distress or substance-use crisis — or knows someone who is.

“This is such an important development,” said Dr. Scott Walters, regents professor in the school of public health at The University of North Texas Health Science at Fort Worth. “It removes one barrier by creating a single, easy-to-remember number people can call, text or chat to receive crisis care during their time of need.”

The hotline was established to meet rapidly growing suicide and mental health crisis care needs. While this three-digit number won’t be replacing the Lifeline, it will provide easier access to a strengthened and expanded network of crisis centers.

When someone calls, texts or chats 988, they will be immediately connected to a trained counselor who is part of the Suicide Prevention Lifeline network, a national network of more than 200 local, independent and state-funded crisis centers equipped to help with emotional distress and suicidal crises.

“Making it easier for people to get crisis assistance with a trained counselor can help them manage these difficult moments,” Walters said. “The data shows that people feel less overwhelmed, depressed and suicidal after speaking to a trained professional for just a few minutes.”

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has partnered with the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Veteran Affairs to create 988. The Biden administration has invested a total of $432 million toward the transition to 988, including $177 million dedicated to strengthening and expanding existing Lifeline network operations and infrastructure, $105 million to help local crisis call centers and an additional $150 million as part of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, approved by Congress in June.

As of December, the Lifeline received approximately 3.3 million contacts in 2020 from phone calls, text messages and online chats. That number could balloon to  6 million to 12 million after the first year of 988’s implementation, climbing to between 13 million and 41 million by its fifth year, according to a December report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The newly created number will come online during a time many in the mental health profession are characterizing as a mental health pandemic in the wake of COVID-19. People around the country — and world — still are grappling with isolation and loss from the past two-plus years.

Recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention numbers suggest that adults with recent symptoms of anxiety or a depressive disorder increased from 36.4% to 41.5% between August 2020 and February 2021.

People experiencing thoughts of suicide or any form of mental health crisis should call 9-8-8 starting on Saturday. The hotline also is available for anyone concerned about someone who may be experiencing a mental health crisis.

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