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988 fills gap in mental health crisis

Stories | 07.25.22

Those seeking help during a mental health crisis or are experiencing suicidal thoughts in the U.S. can simply text or call the numbers 9-8-8.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services launched July 16 the new three-digit 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline — similar to the 911 emergency number.

Its goal: to make it easier to connect people who are experiencing a mental health emergency with a trained mental health professional 24/7 year-round, said Joseph E. Troiani, Psy.D., Adler University associate professor and founding director of Military Psychology Master of Arts program.

“The dial 988 hotline is only one part of the growing mental health crisis care system being developed nationwide in every state and community,” added Dr. Troiani, who helped developed the local 988 hotline in Will County, Illinois, and has presented on the hotline’s role in a larger crisis care system for the Illinois Mental Health Summit and Mental Health America of Illinois.

The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, which also links to the Veterans Crisis Line, is a network of more than 200 state and local call centers supported by HHS through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

“988 is more than a number, it is a message: we’re here for you,” said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra in a news release. “Through this and other actions, we are treating mental health as a priority and putting crisis care in reach for more Americans.”

The lifeline is a culmination of a three-year effort by HHS, Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. FCC staff first proposed 988 in a report to Congress in August 2019 as the nationwide, easy-to-remember, three-digit dialing code to connect people with suicide prevention and mental health crisis counselors with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Since January 2021, the Biden-Harris Administration has invested $432 million to build capacity of local and backup call centers and provide special services such as a sub-network of Spanish language speakers, according to HHS.

“From an Adlerian perspective, we would see all initiatives to provide increased access to knowledgeable counseling services as a positive development,” said Barton Buechner, Ph.D., interim director of Military Psychology Master of Arts program.

Among other things, Dr. Buechner said, the hotline increases awareness of the problem in diverse American communities and shows an intention to act at the systemic level with resources to intervene in real-time when individuals are in crisis.

According to HHS, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline received 3.6 million calls, chats, and texts in 2021. That number is expected to at least double within the first full year after the launch of 988.

The U.S. had one death by suicide every 11 minutes in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was the leading cause of death for young people aged 10-14 and 25-34. The CDC added that most Lifeline callers, after speaking with trained crisis counselors, were significantly more likely to feel less depressed, less suicidal, less overwhelmed, and more hopeful.

“From these and other initiatives, we have learned that one of the most effective interventions in preventing at-risk individuals from carrying out a suicide attempt is to be able to speak with someone else who has ‘been there’ and who that person can relate to,” said Dr. Buechner. “A national hotline can help to connect persons in crisis with other resources that they otherwise may not have access to.”

For more information on 988, visit samhsa.gov/988.

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