Suicide prevention hotline launched across nation

By Andrew Cromarty
October 6th, 2022
Susan Wagner, M.A., is the executive director of the Massachusetts Psychological Association.
Susan Wagner, M.A., is the executive director of the Massachusetts Psychological Association.

On July 16, the 988, the new three-digit national suicide prevention hotline launched in New England and across the nation. With mental health crises becoming increasingly prevalent, initiatives like the 988 can be invaluable to individuals and families in need of support.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide was the 12th leading cause of death in the United States in 2020, with an estimated 1.2 million suicide attempts. It is the second leading cause of death for people aged 10-34.

In 2019, 37 percent of high school students reported regularly experiencing feelings of sadness or hopelessness—an increase of 40 percent over the last decade. More than half of those students admitted to seriously considering suicide.

“The new 988 number will be America’s mental health safety net by providing emotional support for people in distress, reducing suicides and mental health crises, and providing a pathway to well-being for all,” the Vermont Department of Mental Health announced on its webpage.

The three-digit hotline offers an easier resource to remember than the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s (NSPL) previous number (1-800-273-8255), which will remain active. The 988 will be available to call or text 24 hours a day, seven days a week for anyone in suicidal, mental health or substance use crisis and their family members.

Here at NAMI Mass, we believe 988 is the first step in reimagining our response to crisis, but there’s more work to do.” -- Jacqueline Hubbard, J.D., policy director, NAMI Massachusetts

Unlike the former NSPL, the 988 number is guaranteed to connect callers immediately to a local counselor, day or night.

Jacqueline Hubbard, J.D., policy director for NAMI Massachusetts, is happy about the implementation of the hotline, but hopes it is just the first of many steps that will lead to more comprehensive and effective responses to these types of crises.

“The Lifeline has around 200 local call centers and national backup centers across the country to answer these calls,” Hubbard added. “Here at NAMI Mass, we believe 988 is the first step in reimagining our response to crisis, but there’s more work to do.”

According to Hubbard, experts at NAMI envision a behavioral health system that includes immediate access to services that are culturally and linguistically responsive and include both options for clinical support and peer and family support from those with lived experience. They hope to eventually see a system that boasts a comprehensive continuum of services to connect people to ongoing care and support that ensures affordable access for all.

NAMI, The Massachusetts Association for Mental Health, and health professionals nationwide emphasize the importance of offering crisis resources that are separate from the public safety focus of 911. The 911 emergency response system is designed to provide help for health emergencies, fires, and criminal activities, but responders are not trained to respond to behavioral health emergencies.

“Psychologists feel that any mechanism that provides an opportunity for individuals to obtain access to behavioral health services, especially when in a crisis situation, is beneficial, as long as the individuals providing the triaged care are appropriately trained and the service is executed in an efficient and competent manner,” said Susan Wagner, M.A., executive director of the Massachusetts Psychological Association. “Such a mechanism can help alleviate calls to 911 and make a profound difference in people’s lives.”

Hubbard added that she hopes the 988 hotline is a step toward implementing a full range of immediate and non-coercive crisis support services that can meet the specific needs and preferences of individuals seeking care over the phone, in-person, virtually, or at a 24/7 crisis center.

The Massachusetts Association for Mental Health believes that with the help of community-based solutions and investments, 988 operators would eventually be able to dispatch mobile crisis intervention teams of behavioral health professionals and peer support. Such approaches would minimize the need for police response, reducing the risks associated with police interventions.

The 988 hotline has been implemented in all 50 states as part of an FCC mandate, but will require action by state’s legislations to find continued success and further improve behavioral health systems.

Several states are pushing bills similar to Massachusetts’ H.2081, “An Act to better coordinate suicide prevention services, behavioral health crisis care and emergency services through 988 implementation.”

The bill calls for implementation of a behavioral health emergency response infrastructure that would provide unique services, including mobile behavioral health crisis responders, and coordinated access to community crisis stabilization programs. As of July 7, the bill was reported favorably by the committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery and referred to the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing.

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