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7 Things to Know About 988

A mental health counselor's perspective on this important step to improve care.

Key points

  • A universal crisis line, 988, launches this week. It is one step in an important path of prioritizing mental health nationally.
  • Calling 988 will connect you to a crisis counselor regardless of where you are.
  • The 988 crisis line can help to promote early intervention and reduce public spending and suicide rates.
Unsplash/Alexander Andrews
Source: Unsplash/Alexander Andrews

This week a universal mental health crisis line launches in the United States. As part of the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act, calling 988 will connect you to a crisis counselor regardless of where you are in the country. This shift has the potential to improve mental health care, combat rates of death by suicide, reduce national spending, and enhance mental health awareness. Here are seven key things you need to know:

1. The number is new, but the process isn’t. While the legislation to put 988 into place across the nation occurred within the past year, the structure of 988 is not novel. SAMHSA launched the suicide prevention line in 2005. The lifeline has received over 20 million calls since, and transitioning to 988 is another step in mental health care.

2. It’s concise and consistent. When in a crisis, it is challenging to think clearly, much less remember an 11-digit number. Akin to 9-1-1, the ease of recollecting 9-8-8 improves the likelihood of someone calling for help in a time of need. While some areas have previously had three-digit help lines, due to varied mental health systems and funding per state, they have not been consistent until now.

3. Early intervention is critical. Although 988 was founded on the priority of improving suicide prevention, the lifeline is not solely for individuals having thoughts about suicide. When you hear alarming statistics such as “more people die by suicide than car accidents” or “for every one person who dies by suicide, 316 others seriously consider suicide,” recognizing that suicide is a nationwide concern is a logical conclusion. But we can fail to recognize that suicide is often a later chapter in someone’s lengthy struggle with mental health. So individuals are encouraged to call 988 when they are in a mental health crisis of any kind. In the past, individuals may not have been helped because they were not specifically dealing with suicidal ideation. Some problems were exacerbated, and a timely connection was impossible. With 988, you are encouraged to call if you feel you're in a crisis and need support even if you are unsure if your concern qualifies as a crisis. Finally, the line is available 24/7, an acknowledgment that mental health concerns can occur at any time, and deserves the same urgency as physical health emergencies.

4. You can seek help on behalf of someone else. A mental health crisis often inhibits an individual’s ability to seek help for themselves. With 988, caring individuals concerned for the welfare of others are encouraged to call to receive guidance. Mental health concerns are a community concern, and this accessibility allows us to help one another better, especially when someone we care about may not be capable of doing so independently.

5. It's not the same as calling a loved one. Supportive individuals can play a critical role when struggling with a mental health concern. Many times, loved ones’ motivation, encouragement, compassion, and resourcefulness catalyze the healing process. But while loved ones may be well-intended, they are not all trained in crisis care. If you are in a severe accident, you would likely call 911 for help before calling someone you know, and 988 offers a similar resource for mental health. When you call 988, trained crisis counselors are available to listen and refer individuals in need to local centers.

6. A trained counselor is not synonymous with a licensed mental health professional. While some individuals who answer the helpline may be licensed mental health professionals, many are trained volunteers. An individual should always expect empathy and support when calling. However, it is important to clarify that these are not therapy sessions. Ideally, a part of the process is connecting the caller to a licensed professional to continue healing following de-escalation.

7. It’s a step, not a solution. Federal funding to promote early access and care shows a recognition of the importance of mental health care, but it also normalizes that mental health problems can occur to anyone. Just as we program 911 into our minds, the ease of a three-digit number for emergency mental health care is an important step toward improving mental health as a nation.

While highlighting that calls can encompass early intervention and individuals seeking support on behalf of someone else, this will likely expand the number of callers to the helpline. Are states equipped to handle this influx? There are over 180 local centers prepared to assist with this level of need. However, what if I told you there were only 180 hospitals in the country? Some states have mobile crisis units ready to respond to critical 988 calls, but this is not widespread. Subsequent steps need to be taken to improve accessibility to mental health care with licensed professionals before, and following, crises.

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

More from Shainna Ali Ph.D., LMHC, NCC
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