New National Hotline Launches in July: 988 For Mental Health Emergencies

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By Lori Ryland, Ph.D., LP, CAADC, CCS, BCBA-D, Chief Clinical Officer, Pinnacle Treatment Centers

Resources for Transforming Crisis Care

Over the past twenty years, when we experience a national tragedy, one thing we’ve heard our elected officials say time and again is something along the lines of “We commit to allocating the resources necessary to address the underlying issues that led to this sad day.”

We’re paraphrasing, of course.

But that’s the kind of thing we hear when our policymakers give speeches in times of mourning. From natural disasters, to accidents involving transportation/infrastructure, to mass shootings, to suicides, to stories about the preventable deaths caused by circumstances as diverse as drug overdose, domestic violence, or even social and political extremism.

In every case, tragedy leads back to the need for mental health support for people who directly experience tragedy, people who witness tragedy, or people who experience grief and loss indirectly though a tragic event or events.

Think about that.

Every tragedy we experience – whether individually or as a collective – leads back to the need for expanded mental health support for our citizens. As a nation, we’ve finally realized that our entire concept of crisis response lacks an essential element: a recognition that human emotion and psychological wellbeing are as important as any other component in our existing crisis response infrastructure.

We’ve made progress, yes. Mental health support expanded and increased in response to COVID-19. Mental health and grief counselors are now among the first items discussed in an organized response to horrible, tragic events like school shootings. However, those responses are one-off, time-dependent, piecemeal fixes. What we lack is a mental health component to our national crisis response strategy.

What we need is a mental health 911.

And this July, we’re getting it.

The new number is 988, and it will be managed and maintained by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), in cooperation with the 250+ local hotline services operated by the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

What’s the Goal of 988?

First, we’ll answer a question you may have:

What does all this have to do with addiction treatment?

We are, after all, an addiction treatment provider.

Here’s one answer: addiction is a mental health issue.

Here’s another, perhaps better way to put it:

A substance use or addiction emergency is a mental health emergency.

Over the past several years, we’ve learned what can happen when an individual activates our current emergency system for an emergency or crisis that involves mental health issues, rather than dangerous criminal activity. In some cases, because of a lack of awareness and understanding, and a lack of appropriate training, the outcome is tragic – and that’s an outcome no one wants. Not the person making the call, not the person responding to the call, and no one involved in the situation.

That’s where 988 comes in. And that’s the goal of 988. When a mental health crisis occurs, we can achieve a positive outcome, and prevent tragedy. We know 988 is an important, necessary step. We know that when 988 goes live, people will call.

Why?

The Numbers Don’t Lie

All the available data shows that, in addition to being in the midst of a public health crisis (COVID-19 is not over), we’re also in a mental health, suicide, and substance abuse crisis. Here’s the data that demonstrates the need for 988.

Mental Health Data

Suicide in 2020

  • 46,000 people in the U.S. died by suicide
    • That’s one death by suicide every 11 minutes
  • 2 million adults seriously thought about suicide
  • 2 million adults made a suicide plan
  • 2 million adults seriously thought about suicide

Psychiatric Emergencies: Trends

Psychiatric Emergencies: During COVID-19

Overdose Data (Centers for Disease Control Overdose Dashboard)

Opioid Overdose Fatalities (12-Month Period Ending In December 2021)

  • 2019: 50,178
  • 2020: 69,061
  • 2021: 78,960

Overdose Fatalities for All Drugs (12-Month Period Ending In December 2021)

  • 2019: 67,697
  • 2020: 78,056
  • 2021: 105,149

It’s crystal clear. We need to create a national infrastructure that can support this level of need – and we’re finally taking concrete steps to make that national infrastructure a reality. Now that we’ve clarified the need and presented the data demonstrating the need for a nationwide mental health crisis support line, we’ll share a condensed version of the FAQ section of the 988 webpage maintained by SAMHSA. If our summary doesn’t give you what you need, please click the link above and explore the 988 site.

The New 988 Line: The Basic Facts

We’ll cut to the chase.

Here’s everything you need to know:

  1. What…
      • Is 988?
        • The new 988 number will connect people to the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Mental health, suicide, and substance use support will be available for anyone experiencing distress. People can also dial 988 if a friend or loved one needs crisis support.
      • Happens when I dial 988?
        • You’ll hear a greeting message while the service connects you call to the Lifeline network crisis center in your area code. When local support services are full, you’ll be redirected to a member of the national support team.
      • If the caller doesn’t speak English?
        • 988 will provide support in English and Spanish. In addition, 988 will use Language Line Solutions to provide translation services in over 250 languages.
      • Happens when I text 988?
        • English-only text support will be available through 988. Once connected, a crisis counselor will listen, work to understand your crisis, provide support, and share resources that may be helpful.
  1. When…
      • Will 988 will go live?
        • On July 16th, 2022
  1. Who…
      • Is 988 for?
        • The 988 line supports people seeking help during a suicide crisis, a mental health crisis, and/or substance use crisis.
      • Answers the call?
        • Trained crisis counselors answer every call to 988. The current National Lifeline requires counselors meet essential training standards for Suicide Risk Assessment and Imminent Risk intervention.
  1. Where…
      • Can I call 988 from?
      • Anywhere in the U.S.
  1. Why…
      • Should I call?
        • If you need immediate support for a mental health, substance use, or suicide crisis, please dial 988, beginning on July 16th, 2022.

In addition, it’s important for people to understand that if the crisis requires emergency intervention beyond the scope of 988 support, the 988 system will be fully integrated into the 911 system. Any member of the 988 staff can connect callers directly to the 911 system. When this occurs, the 988 operator will provide all necessary information to the 911 operator.

Note: 988 is hiring. Please click here to learn about employment and volunteer opportunities related to the new 988 system.

Do Emergency Lines Really Work?

Yes, they do.

Many people worry that talking to someone about suicide will increase their risk of suicide, but evidence shows the opposite. Click here, here, and here to learn how talking about suicide with someone who engages in suicidal behavior reduces, rather than increases, risk of suicide. Talking about suicide can also uncover mental health issues that people need help managing. In that way, reaching out for support through a helpline/hotline like 988 can lead to overall improvements in mental health.

Studies conducted using information from the current National Suicide Prevention Lifeline show that most callers who use the lifeline feel:

  • Less depressed
  • Less suicidal
  • More hopeful
  • Less overwhelmed

We’ll end by reiterating something we wrote above: a substance use crisis is a mental health crisis. Here’s something we think our readers need to understand as well: overdose is not the only thing that qualifies as a substance use crisis. If you have an addiction problem and need help, you can call 988. If addiction causes emotional and psychological distress you feel like you can’t handle on your own, you can call 988.

Just like 911, the 988 emergency line – when it launches nationwide on July 16th – is for everyone experiencing an mental health, suicide-related, or substance-related crisis. It will be available 24/7, and offer immediate support to anyone who calls.

Here at Pinnacle Treatment, we think this is an excellent step in the right direction. The new 988 suicide hotline number shows a growing understanding by policymakers at the highest level that allocating resources to mental health challenges could change outcomes, help our most vulnerable citizens, and save lives.

The materials provided on the Pinnacle Blog are for information and educational purposes only. No behavioral health or any other professional services are provided through the Blog and the information obtained through the Blog is not a substitute for consultation with a qualified health professional. If you are in need of medical or behavioral health treatment, please contact a qualified health professional directly, and if you are in need of emergency help, please go to your nearest emergency room or dial 911.