988 was launched as a mental health alternative to 911 a year ago. This is how the hotline works to reach more people.

It's been a year since the launch of 988. How does the hotline work?  (Illustration by Katie Martin for Yahoo / Photo: Getty Images)

It’s been a year since the launch of 988. How does the hotline work? (Illustration by Katie Martin for Yahoo / Photo: Getty Images)

Last July, a psychological emergency line was launched with an easy-to-remember number: 988. Calling 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (formerly the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) connects people with crisis counselors in the United States who are available 24/7 via call, text or chat.

It’s not a new lifeline, but the new number makes it more convenient to connect to the 200 local call centers established in 2005. It differs from 911, which focuses on providing emergency medical, fire and police services.

John Draper, executive director of what was then the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, told Yahoo Life at the launch, “The vast majority of the time, having a thought about suicide in no way means that the person is going to kill themselves; it does mean that a person is in more pain than they know how to deal with. And that’s why it’s so important that they contact us so we can help them deal with it, and we can offer them many other options.”

Because 988 is vital now

The launch of 988 comes on the heels of rising suicide rates. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide rates increased 37% between 2000 and 2018 and decreased 5% between 2018 and 2020, but nearly returned to their peak in 2021.

Rebecca Bernert, director and founder of the Stanford Suicide Prevention Research Laboratory, defines suicide as the tragic outcome of a medical illness and a complex set of risk factors.

COVID has intensified many of these risk factors and challenged an already strained or overburdened healthcare system, he tells Yahoo Life. This has increased the risk among vulnerable people and further limited access to treatment, a central obstacle to prevention and our ability to respond.

Why not 911?

Draper said of 988, “My hope is that we will forget all about 911 when we think about mental health and the suicide crisis in future generations.”

This is because one problem with calling 911 for mental health emergencies is that it could lead to involuntary mental health treatment via the emergency room or a mental hospital. While the intent in that case is to resolve an emergency situation, it can backfire: Research shows that suicide rates rise after people are released from a mental hospital, especially those who were sent there against their will. Those who received treatment involuntarily were also much less likely to disclose suicidal thoughts in the future.

Ashley Pea, executive director of Mission Connection, says it may be time to hit the hotline when you’re struggling with feeling hopeless, helpless, like a burden, or lonely, reach out. She recommended that people contact 988 immediately even if they have thoughts of harming themselves.

How is 988 doing in its first year?

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), nearly 98 percent of people who call, chat, or text the 988 Lifeline get the crisis support they need and don’t require additional services at that time.

A SAMHSA press release states that calls to Lifeline have increased significantly since the launch of 988. Text contacts through Lifeline have increased by 1,135%, answered chats have increased by 141%, and answered calls have increased by 46%. People were also able to connect with a counselor more quickly, with average response speed for contacts decreasing from 2 minutes 39 seconds to 41 seconds.

One potential problem 988 may encounter is funding. Currently, within-state response rates vary widely between states, ranging from 55% to 98%, according to data from KFF, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. While the federal government has invested in the rollout and implementation of 988, going forward, it will be the responsibility of state and local governments to fund local crisis centers. As of June 2023, 26 states have enacted legislation to help support 988.

How 988 is getting better

SAMHSA is trying to ensure that 988 is accessible to as many people as possible. In the press release honoring 988’s first anniversary, Spanish text and chat services were announced as an additional feature.

988 Lifeline already uses LanguageLine solutions to provide translation services in over 240 additional languages. Plans are also underway to add video telephony service to better serve the deaf and hard of hearing.

The lifeline also partners with Vibrant Emotional Health, which offers assistance to “LGBTQI+ youth and young adults under the age of 25 who want to connect with a counselor specifically focused on meeting their needs. During the pilot program, which launched in September 2022, 6% of calls, 11% of chats and 15% of messages addressed to the 988 Lifeline network used Vibrant Emotional Health counselors.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 988.

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