Starting July 16, Americans can dial ‘988’ to access suicide hotline, mental health resourcesJuly 16, 2022
Becerra hosted an event in Philadelphia on Friday to increase visibility for the new service.
Depression and other mental health problems have long been given short shrift compared to physical ailments like heart disease or cancer, but they’re deadly in their own right, especially among younger Americans. In 2020, suicide was the 12th leading cause of death in the U.S. among all age groups. Death by suicide was especially prevalent among those aged 10-34, registering as the second leading cause of death for those aged 10-14 and 25-34, and the third leading cause for those 15-24.
So the need for a more streamlined and effective suicide hotline network was always there. Now the government is finally stepping in to give those in crisis their best chance at an effective intervention. And the new 988 number will give people a lifeline that 911 simply wasn’t providing.
The problem is that 911 wasn’t set up to address mental health needs. Either callers end up in a frenetic emergency room, waiting for hours and sometimes days to get care, or they end up interacting with law enforcement, which can lead to tragedy or trauma.
Mental health advocates hope that 988 will become a widely known, safer and more effective alternative.
“Unlike other medical emergencies, mental health crises overwhelmingly result in a law enforcement response,” says psychologist Benjamin Miller, president of Well Being Trust. “If you look at the data from the police, about 20% of their total staff time is spent responding and transporting individuals who are experiencing a mental health crisis.”
But even with the 988 system going live on Saturday, there’s still more to be done when it comes to implementing it. Some areas have reportedly done better than others when it comes to preparing for the launch.
- More than $430 million in federal funds were allocated to states to scale up and staff crisis centers. But federal officials have still expressed doubts about states’ readiness, Politico reports.
- “There is still much work to do,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement Friday. “But what matters is that we’re launching. 988 will be live.”
- Fewer than half of the public health officials responsible for deploying 988 say they are confident their communities have the necessary staff, financing or equipment to field the anticipated surge of calls, according to a recent Rand report.
While the 911 system has been a fixture of our health care system for as long as many Americans can remember, it actually took years to fully implement. As late as 1979, just 26% of the U.S. population had access to 911 services, and only nine states had passed 911 legislation. Hopefully the 988 system will roll out far more quickly than that, because the need is pressing.
I personally struggled with depression—and suicidal ideation—for many years before getting the help I needed. Treatment worked for me, but it took years for me to overcome the stigma of mental illness, the fear of being judged, the demotivating impact of the depression itself, and the overall sense that nothing would ever work to change my outlook.
Those can be and were daunting obstacles, so anything we can do to ease the burdens those with mental illness already face is invaluable.
Help spread the word about 988: It could literally be the difference between life and death for someone who needs it. And if you’re willing and able, consider volunteering or working at one of the hundreds of crisis centers answering every 988 call.
And remember: This is just the beginning.
“I look at 988 as a starting place where we can really reimagine mental health care,” Hannah Wesolowski, chief advocacy officer for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, told The Washington Post. “We’re really looking at a fundamental tide shift in how we respond to people in mental health crisis.”
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