The contestants on “Celebrity Jeopardy!” were stumped in the fall when asked about the new “3-digit national suicide prevention hotline” in the United States, which debuted last July.
“What’s 311?” comedian Iliza Shlesinger guessed wrongly.
As it turns out, she wasn’t alone. It’s been a year since the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline underwent a makeover, rebranding its 10-digit number as 988, yet many people are unaware of the change or what the hotline provides.
The new number is supposed to make it easier for callers to connect with help when they are having suicidal thoughts, experiencing emotional distress or having a substance use crisis, but only 17 percent of Americans say they are very or somewhat familiar. it, according to an inquiry released Thursday by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. What’s more, the survey found, people are still confused about what to expect when they call.
Many still assume that “you call 988 and — much like 911 — that means someone will be sent to you,” said Hannah Wesolowski, NAMI’s chief operating officer. “For the vast majority – almost all callers — that’s actually not the case.”
Here’s a look at what everyone should know about 988 and the challenges that lie ahead to continue funding and expanding the network.
What should you know about 988?
The 3-digit telephone code for the 988 Suicide and Crisis Helpline became available in July last year after receiving bipartisan support. (President Donald J. Trump signed the law establishing the new number in 2020.) Since then, more than five million calls, chats and texts have been directed to 988, a 66 percent increase over the previous 12 months, before the arrival of the new number
Nearly one million of those contacts were answered by the Veterans Crisis Line, which is connected to 988.
According to the survey, most people either assume that calling 988 will automatically dispatch emergency services like the police, or are not sure, but in fact, less than 2 percent of Lifeline calls require a connection to services like 911. In fact, 988 is currently not used geolocation, so those who call the hotline remain anonymous unless they choose to disclose identifying information. Part of the impetus behind creating 988 was to reduce the reliance on law enforcement or emergency rooms to handle a mental health crisis, and instead build an expanded group of services, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration said. In some places, that includes mobile emergency teams and stabilization centers that offer people a place to go that isn’t an emergency room.
But you don’t need to be in crisis or suicidal to call 988 and talk to a counselor. It is a free service available at all hours, day or night, for anyone who needs support.
“It’s our hope that people will come to us before they’re in a mental health crisis,” said Tia Dole, CEO of the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at Vibrant Emotional Health, the New York-based nonprofit that runs the Lifeline for SAMHSA. .
Why do so few people know about it?
The NAMI survey found that most Americans did not know crucial facts about the Lifeline or what to expect if they called.
This is partly by design. For the last year, none of the Lifeline’s nearly $1 billion in federal funding was allocated towards a propaganda campaign. At first, activists and administrators alike worried that promoting 988 too soon might cause it to be overwhelmed by demand.
But the time has come to raise wider awareness, said Dr Dole. Vibrant aims to start a campaign in the fall that will not only spread the word, but also try to reduce some of the differences between those who understand and embrace 988.
According to NAMI, for example, blacks and adults 50 and older were the least likely to have heard of 988. A Pew study published in April found similar results, and discovered disparities along economic lines as well: People who were wealthier or had higher levels of education were also more likely to be aware of 988.
What other obstacles remain?
In addition to growing public awareness, one of the biggest issues facing the expanded network is long-term funding.
The national network has more than 200 call centers, mostly composed of non-profits with small budgets. Many rely on volunteers and private contributions.
The law that established 988 gave state lawmakers the ability to raise money for call centers by adding a monthly fee on phone bills. But only so far a handful of states did that
The Biden administration’s 2024 budget proposal includes $836 million for 988, an increase of more than $300 million from the amount allocated. last year to get the Lifeline up and running. But experts say more is needed, especially at the local and state levels.
In the next year, the number of calls, texts and chats that come to 988 could be as high as nine million, nearly double the number of contacts in the first year, said Bob Gebbia, the chief executive of the American Cancer Prevention Fund. Suicide .
“That’s a huge increase, and we want to make sure there’s someone there to answer the calls and texts and chats,” he said. “We need to have additional funding.”
The expansion of the network is more complicated by a lack in behavioral health professionals. When local centers cannot pick up, calls are pushed to national reservation centers, which can result in higher wait times or cause callers to simply hang up.
Finally, the current method of routing callers by area code can be problematic if someone’s phone number does not reflect where they currently live. Crisis counselors who help people who live in other states may have more difficulty offering local referrals.
What does the Lifeline do exactly?
The Lifeline has faced record demand in the last year, but it has managed to reduce the waiting time for a response from an adviser.
“This means more people get help and they get help faster, which is crucial for a person in crisis,” said Miriam E. Delphin-Rittmon, the leader of SAMHSA, in a statement Thursday.
Before 988 was implemented, it might take several minutes to reach someone. Now the average response time has dropped from 2 minutes and 39 seconds to 41 seconds, according to SAMHSA. The waiting time can vary quite a bit, however, depending on the location or time of day.
Another big change: The new Lifeline has invested in answering texts and chats. In the past the Lifeline had the capacity to handle only 56 percent of text messages and 30 percent of chats. So far recent data indicates that the new Lifeline responds a a much higher proportion of chats and texts on average.
Overall, “I’m convinced it helps save lives,” Mr. Gebbia said of 988.
Demand for the Lifeline is expected to increase in the coming years as mental illness continues to be a major public health problem. Anxiety and depression are widespread, especially among young adults: A KFF analysis of census data found that half of adults ages 18 to 24 reported symptoms of anxiety and depression in 2023, compared with about a third of adults overall. In addition, the suicide increased by 35 percent over the past two decades.
In addition to serving the population in general, the 988 Lifeline also aspires to provide assistance tailored to specific groups. The Lifeline now offers an LGBTQ “subnet” for those under the age of 25 and this month launched Spanish text and chat options.
In addition, Dr. Dole said that later this year the Lifeline plans to add a videophone service for the deaf and hard of hearing.
If you are having thoughts about suicide, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Helpline or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources. go here for resources outside the United States.