988 and the Ongoing Battle to Prevent Suicide

You may or may not know about the Suicide and Crisis Hotline. From 2005 until mid-2022, people experiencing suicidal thoughts could seek help from the hotline, but they had to dial an unwieldy 10-digit 800-number. In moments of crisis, it can be hard to think straight, let alone remember a long phone number you’re supposed to call for help. If you couldn’t remember how to find the number, or if you or someone you cared about were in imminent danger, your remaining option would likely be calling 911. This was not ideal for many reasons.  In BIPOC and Queer communities in particular, calling 911 could pose a very real danger. And often, emergency services responders were not trained to handle mental health crises correctly. Enter the new mental health crisis number, 988. 

988 Lifeline was created in 2022 to help streamline and standardize the previous hotline system. It is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and has access to over 200 crisis centers nationwide. 988 Lifeline supports chatting*, texting, or calling, allowing those in crisis to seek support via whichever method works best for them.  This has opened channels for those who may not have been able to call in before. 988 Lifeline also offers specialized options, such as an option for veteran-specific help and an option for LGBTQ+ help. 988 Lifeline offers direct services in English and now Spanish, and offers Tele-Interpreter services for over 240 languages.

According to an article written by Laura Santhanam, 988 has fielded over 5 million calls, texts, and chat messages in the year since its implementation. The standardized service has allowed for wait times as short as 41 seconds, almost halved since its implementation. 

This doesn’t mean that the new 988 Crisis Line is without critics. In some cases, such as if a caller is in imminent danger, 988 will redirect communications to emergency services. Though the percentage of calls needing additional emergency assistance is small, critics of the service are wary. They worry that the involvement of police especially may escalate situations to become more dangerous than they were prior to the intervention. Critics also worry about forced hospitalization, and how that may traumatize help-seekers even further. And this is a fair concern – suicide rates after release from hospitalization skyrocket when the person was involuntarily admitted.  You can read more about these concerns, and additional resources for those experiencing mental health crises, in this article from NPR.  

However, this does not negate the fact that 988 Lifeline is a life-saver. According to the same article written by Santhanam, 988 had received 2 million more calls in its first year than the former (longer) helpline number had received the year prior. One of those callers was Danny Jablonski. In the spring of 2023, he hit a mental health crisis after his mother died. Feeling alone, he sought to commit suicide – but not before getting in contact with 988. The crisis worker on the other end pleaded with him to not follow through, and though he still initially intended to commit suicide, the message the crisis worker sent continued to play in his head. Don’t do it. In the end, he listened to the crisis worker, and is in a better place now, mentally. 

As it celebrates its first year, 988 continues to grow in its mission.  From including services in Spanish, to working to train its counselors on possible alternatives to calling emergency services, 988 continues its work to help people in crisis and save lives.  


For further information about 988 and its first year of implementation, check these sites and stories:

988Lifeline. https://988lifeline.org/ 

Pattani, A. (2022, August 25). Social media posts warn people not to call 988. Here’s what you need to know. NPR. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2022/08/11/1116769071/social-media-posts-warn-people-not-to-call-988-heres-what-you-need-to-know 

Santhanam, L. (2023, July 14). A year since 988 started helping callers, here’s what experts want to see next. PBS. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/988-hotline-helped-millions-in-its-first-year-heres-how-advocates-say-it-could-reach-more 

White, M. (2023, May 31). “988 saved my life”: University Place man shares how quickly-growing crisis line helped him overcome dark period. king5.com. https://www.king5.com/article/news/local/988-saved-local-mans-life-university-place/281-2edaba8e-f408-47de-bd29-666bad62397e 

* As of this posting, the 988 Lifeline chat connects users with live counselors.  This is not a chatbot feature.

If you or someone you care about is experiencing a mental health emergency, please contact 988, text HOME to 741741 (Crisis Text Line), or consider going to your nearest emergency room.

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