By Rodrigo Hernandez
Just as 911 is an easy number to remember, so is 988—constituting a quick way to call or text to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline/988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.
Connected to a network of more than 200 call centers around the country and funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Substance Abuse Administration, the 988 line provides 24-hour, seven-days-per-week confidential support to people in suicidal crisis or mental health distress. Federal law and the Federal Communications Commission created it in 2020.
Ongoing search for more resources
“For the past 15 years, I have been advocating to help families learn more about mental health and how to help the person living with a mental health disorder,” said Marianne Bithos, president of the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) in the south suburbs. “As far as the 988 program is going…some counties in Illinois are still trying to gather more resources to help the person living with a mental health disorder.”
Bithos emphasized NAMI has an extensive catalog of resources to inform people about mental health advocacy, crisis intervention, and 988, all available at nami.org. She recommended people see the lifeline as a tool that does more than suicide prevention.
“The 988 line is advertised as a suicide prevention line, but I feel that a mental health crisis comes in all forms and they should all be looked at as a crisis,” Bithos said.
Although the line is up and running, “It is going to take several years to fully implement the national 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline and its coordinated mental health response system as planned,” said Troy Siewert, a retired law enforcement officer now with the Insightful Crisis Response organization. “The implementation of the national three-digit number 988 to access the lifeline, however, is a wonderful first step. It is an easy number to remember that is consistent throughout the country and thus reduces a potential barrier to use.”
Like Bithos, Siewert stressed that 988 provides much more than suicide prevention services. “It is for individuals going through a mental health crisis, suicidal crisis, or experiencing emotional distress,” he said. “Trained counselors provide callers with free and confidential crisis counseling, emotional support, and information about local resources Not just people in crisis can call 988, but also family members of those in crisis.”
As Siewert explained, as part of the 2020 law, “On July 16, 2022, the ten-digit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, (800) 273-8255, transitioned to 988,” he said. “This was the result of a three-year joint effort by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Federal Communications Commission, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)to make crisis care more accessible for those who need it.”
The original number continues to operate.
Proper crisis intervention
Siewert also addressed appropriate ways to text or call 988.
“Unless there is a specific need for police, fire, or EMS [emergency medical] services, individuals should think first of calling or texting 988—rather than 911—when needing assistance for emotional distress, a mental health crisis, or a suicidal crisis,” he said. “Society has been conditioned to call 911 when help is needed and we don’t know where else to go to get it. Unfortunately, this may not always be the most appropriate response. Individuals should call 988 when it is the most appropriate response for their situation.”
If having thoughts of suicide or mental health issues, call or text 988 or log on to 988lifeline.org or suicidepreventionlifeline.org. For NAMI and its many resources, visit NAMI.org. To learn more about crisis intervention training, visit InsightfulCrisisResponse.com.
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