Some Changes Are Coming To The Suicide Hotline. Here's What You Need To Know

There's a new number to call if you're having a mental health crisis starting July 16, 2022: 988. The problem? Not many people know about it.

A poll conducted by The Trevor Project back in April found at least 69% of people who responded, "had not seen, read or heard much about calling 988 to reach the Lifeline." But one problem with the hotline is that the more word spreads about the new number, the more concerns are being raised about the system's readiness to support what's expected to be a surge in calls to the suicide hotline.

"It's a new number, but it's not a new service," Dr. John Draper, executive director of the National Suicide Lifeline, told the New York Times. From the hotline's inception in 2005, Bloomberg reports 1-800-273-8255 grew from fielding around 50,000 annual calls to about 2.4 million annual calls just in 2020.

Hannah Wesolowski, chief advocacy officer at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, explained to the New York Times that the suicide hotline has always been meant for anyone experiencing both mental health and substance use issues because hotline volunteers are supposed to be trained on how to handle everything from self-harm to addiction, to suicidal thoughts. These services won't be stopping with the number changing to 988, and don't worry: the original 800 number will still work.

The goal of the switch is to make emergency mental healthcare more accessible and safer, especially for those in crisis or having a mental breakdown.

988 is supposed to be the 911 of mental health emergencies

Despite the fact mental health crises can be medical emergencies, psychologist Benjamin Miller, president of Well Being Trust explained to WBUR that more often than not, it's the police who are answering these calls. 911, while a number for emergencies, was never supposed to be for mental health emergencies. "If you look at the data from the police," he pointed out, "about 20% of their total staff time is spent responding and transporting individuals who are experiencing a mental health crisis."

This time spent responding and transporting, more often than not, ends up with those needing serious mental healthcare ending up in jail, Miller explained, adding that of all of the fatal shootings police are involved in, about a quarter of victims were those suffering mental illness.

But research has shown, The Washington Post reports, that helplines like the suicide hotline are incredibly effective at saving lives. Callers, these findings show, had "significant reductions in intent to die, hopelessness, and psychological pain" by the end of their call. Which is the whole point of the hotline, according to Xavier Becerra, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. In a briefing earlier this month, the Washington Post reports Becerra said that the whole goal of implementing 988 was to make it "like 911."

The caveat? This is the goal of 988's implementation, says Becerra. Not what the hotline will be when it launches.

Some states won't be ready for the new suicide hotline

When the suicide hotline switches to 988 on Saturday, July 16, 2022, many healthcare providers and mental health advocates have major concerns. This is partly because, as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra pointed out, each state is responsible for setting up and funding their suicide hotline call centers (via The Washington Post).

Currently, according to the Washington Post, there were about 200 call centers locally operated in 2021, which fielded about 3.6 million calls, texts, or chats. When the hotline switches from the 800-273-TALK (8255) to 988, the number of requests is expected to jump to over 7.6 million. But after the results of a Rand Corporation survey were released, it's clear there is still a lot of work to be done to implement a better mental health crisis response service (via Bloomberg).

Of the behavioral-health program directors who responded to the survey, more than half said they weren't helping their state implement 988, Bloomberg reports. Many didn't even have a mental-health hotline set up in their jurisdiction, the survey said, and of those that did, the majority lacked text and online chat support. Without online chat and text support, Bloomberg points out, there's a major risk of not being able to reach teens and tweens.

Ryan McBain of Rand Corporation told CBS News their findings confirmed what many feared: there hasn't been enough time or resources dedicated to 988's rollout.

Here's what you can expect if you call 988

Despite the fact that not every state has the infrastructure in place to support a suicide hotline, 988 will be available for use nationally. But with funding and organization left up to the states, not everyone will be able to access the same level of care.

What's supposed to happen when you call 988 is that a counselor or trained volunteer will help talk you through what's at the root of what's pushing you into crisis, explains The New York Times. With most calls lasting an average of 15-20 minutes, Dr. John Draper explained that call-takers are meant to help those in crisis help "engage some of their natural coping mechanisms" as well as help callers come up with a plan for once they hang up. Often, this includes making plans of who the caller can reach out to now that they're no longer in crisis, like starting to work with an outside therapist or reaching out to a clergy member, Dr. Draper explained.

Emergency services, like EMS or police, would only be contacted if they're absolutely needed.

With how dramatically call volume is supposed to increase, though, already understaffed call centers are worried about what will happen if and when they can't help everyone. There are currently 16 national call centers set up to handle overflow from local call centers, WBUR reports, and the SAMHSA website is accepting applications for volunteers. But there's still a lot of work to do to ensure everyone has access to this life-saving resource.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.