Reviews |  The proof in numbers: 988 will save lives

Reviews | The proof in numbers: 988 will save lives

Hannah Wesolowski is Advocacy Manager for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

For too long, there has been no simple, safe way for someone with suicidal thoughts or a mental health crisis to get immediate help. Thankfully, that seems to be changing thanks to 988.

988, which became available nationwide earlier this summer, is a dedicated number anyone can contact for mental health, addictions and suicidal crises. When Congress and the Federal Communications Commission designated it as an emergency line in 2020, there were questions about why this number was needed and how effective it was. But now we have data to back up the resource: the demand for help is high and the numbers are giving thousands of people the help they need.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimated the volume of contacts at 988 will more than double in its first year. The latest data since the July 16 transition shows that the number of contacts to 988 by call, text and chat in August 2022 increased by 45% compared to August 2021, an increase of 152,000 contacts. That’s 152,000 more people receiving help when they need it most.

This significant increase in contacts occurred before there was even a large-scale public awareness campaign to promote 988, so the number of contacts will likely continue to grow.

Fortunately, before 988 became available, call centers and heads of state rose to the challenge of meeting the increased need. The average response time between calls, texts and chats is decreasing and response rates are increasing, with 20 states answering more than 90% of internal calls in August, compared to just seven in January.

This has real benefits. 988 connects people with trained crisis counselors who can actively engage callers and resolve crises over the phone. This reduces the need for an in-person response, which has historically been conducted by law enforcement (contributing to high incarceration rates for people with mental illness).

Research has repeatedly shown that receiving help over the phone can reduce the risk of suicide. It can also help connect people with more mental health services to recover and stay healthy.

The success of 988 so far gives us a historic opportunity to reinvent the way we respond to people in mental health crisis, and it couldn’t be more timely. The United States is in the midst of a mental health emergency. American adults are experiencing a threefold increase in symptoms of anxiety and depression compared to 2019. An American commits suicide every 11 minutes.

The statistics of our young people are particularly dire. The number of teens going to the emergency room with suspected suicide attempts has skyrocketed, increasing by more than 31% between 2019 and 2021. At my organization, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, we see the impact daily human of these numbers on individuals. , families, friends and communities across our country.

As we celebrate Suicide Prevention Awareness Month this month, we owe it to our loved ones and communities to recognize the urgent need and unprecedented opportunity before us. With the transition to 988 to access emergency mental health and suicide care, we have the potential to fundamentally transform our crisis response and save lives, but only if we continue to act.

Indeed, our work has only just begun. We need to establish a full continuum of crisis services around 988 in every community. Every call, text or chat should be answered by a local call center with culturally competent resources. And for those who need more help, a mental health crisis response team should be available to provide appropriate, safe and effective care.

Far too often we have seen mental health initiatives start with great promise, but fail due to lack of investment. 988 is a huge step forward, but we can’t stop halfway when lives are at stake. With continued investment and focus, 988 can be transformative.

Currently, mental health is a bright spot of political cooperation and bipartisanship. In the 2021 budget, the lifeline received only $24 million. This investment has grown to more than $250 million in 2022, and President Biden has requested nearly $700 million for 988 and crisis services in 2023. This money would not only help build 988 capacity, but also support a full continuum of crisis care.

The challenge is to build on the success of 988 deployment, both at the federal and state levels. This effort will prevent more lives from being tragically lost every day. We can and must offer hope for a better future to anyone in difficulty.

If you or someone you know is in trouble or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org.

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