By Adrianna Rodriquez, USA TODAY
The rollout of 988 as the new National Suicide Prevention Lifeline may have saved more than 150,000 more lives in one month than it would have before the transition, according to data released last week.
The initiative has been in the works for years, but the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration finally launched the new number on July 16, replacing the old 10-digit number, 1-800-273-8255.
In a statement last week, the Department of Health and Human Services released data showing a 45% increase in overall volume last month compared with August 2021, representing 152,000 more contacts that include calls, chats and texts.
The agency also reported a significant reduction in response times, plunging from 2.5 minutes to 42 seconds.
“Our nation’s transition to 988 moves us closer to better serving the crisis care needs of people across America,” said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, “988 is more than a number, it’s a message: We’re there for you.”
Suicide is one of the country’s leading causes of death for people aged 10 to 34 years old, according to SAMHSA, with the country reporting one death every 11 minutes in 2020.
Although they’re glad to see progress, health experts say there’s more that needs to be done to catch up with the nation’s growing mental health crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Annually, the mental health in the U.S. has been declining, (and) what COVID has done is send that into a tail-spin,” said Dr. Rheeda Walker, an expert on mental health and suicide prevention, and a psychology professor at the University of Houston. “Having an opportunity to be able to speak to someone who is going to be non-judgmental … it’s immeasurable in how important that is.”
As 988 becomes a recognized number like 911, health experts warn sustaining higher call volumes and reduced wait times will require more people, which may become an issue as the program seeks to expand.
“What we’re seeing in the mental health field as part of the mental health crisis is that there’s a shortage of providers,” said Dr. Amanda Fialk, mental health expert and chief clinical officer at The Dorm, a mental health treatment community for young adults. “There’s more people who need help than there are people who can provide help.”
Experts say more funding will be needed to not only hire existing mental health providers, but also to recruit and offer training to those interested in the profession.
The Biden administration announced that it will allocate another $150 million to 988 under the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, including $35 million in grants to better support tribal communities. The additional funding builds on the $432 million already invested to support the 988 transition.
A study published Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found American Indian or Alaska Native people were disproportionately affected by suicide, surpassing rates among all other racial and ethnic groups.
Suicides in this population increased nearly 20% from 2015 to 2020 compared with a less than 1% increase among the overall U.S. population, according to the report.
Health experts hope 988 can further reduce call wait times. They argue 45 seconds is still too long for someone experiencing a mental health crisis, and they’d like to see 988 become more culturally competent and available in other languages. Currently, the chat and text function is available only in English.
“Different people have different preferences in the way they like to communicate, especially when they’re in a crisis,” Fialk said.
She hopes 988 also may incorporate a video-calling function for those who prefer face-to-face counseling. Walker adds that people may benefit with an in-person option where mental health professionals are dispatched to someone’s location, like 911.
Overall, Walker said, mental health must be destigmatized and access to services increased so people can feel comfortable asking for help before they reach a crisis point.