New 988 Mental Health Crisis Line sees a jump in calls and texts within the first month

The new 988 Suicide and Crisis Rescue Line is already reaching more Americans in distress — and connecting them to help faster — than the old 10-digit suicide prevention line that replaced July 16.

New data released Friday by the US Department of Health and Human Services shows that in August — the first full month 988 was operational — Lifeline saw a 45% increase in the total volume of calls, texts and conversations compared to August 2021.

The number of answered calls rose from 141,400 to 216,000 — a more than 50% increase, according to HHS officials. Messages answered rose by a whopping 1,000% – from 3,400 in August 2021 to 39,900 in August this year. The number of chats on the Lifeline website that were answered saw an increase of 195%.

“Our nation’s transition to 988 brings us closer to better serving the crisis care needs of people across America,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement.

The numbers are encouraging, says psychologist Ben Miller, an advocate of mental health policy.

“In terms of data points, that’s good news,” he says. “People are using the line, which is what we want. It will help us save lives, and that’s what we want.”

He adds that what is particularly heartening is data showing that people have to wait less to contact a trained counsellor at one of the more than 200 call centers that make up the 988 national network.

HHS officials say that in August of 2021, the average response time for calls, conversations and texts was 2 minutes 30 seconds, which Miller says is a long time to wait for someone in crisis.

But, in August, that response time dropped to 42 seconds — a huge improvement, he adds.

The Biden administration has invested historic amounts of money to strengthen the 988 infrastructure, allocating a lot of money to add new redundant call centers, as well as hiring more people to answer calls in existing call centers.

“I don’t really know how it will turn out over time, but to see this huge increase, I have to attribute it to the fact that there are more resources, which means more call center employees, which means more opportunities to develop the right infrastructure to help get people out faster ‘ says Miller.

Clean DianaThe 41-year-old, a Baltimore resident and mental health advocate, says she has used the suicide prevention line several times, especially during the pandemic, when she had frequent panic attacks.

“It’s been good for me getting through the dark nights, long nights, and scary nights,” says Diana, who also called 988 recently to help loved ones and community members in crisis.

But, while 988 certainly helps more people overall, we don’t yet know how the system works in individual states, Miller warns. The newly released data does not have a case-by-case breakdown.

“There will be huge disparities across states,” he says.

While 988 Lifeline is accessible nationally, with a nationwide network of call centers, it operates primarily as a state-run system. Countries vary greatly in how much they invested in their previous 10-digit life line and associated services. According to the post Analysis of the National Institute of Mental Illnessvery few states have passed legislation to supplement the last 988 federal funds.

So seeing the performance of individual countries is key to understanding which countries will need more help and funding, and in what way, Miller explains.

And the quality of service can vary even among people who work in crisis call centers, says Diona, 34, a Harlem, New York, resident and member of Fountain House, a social club for people with mental illness.

Diona has always struggled with suicidal thoughts and attempts, and she frequently calls the number 988 and her former 10-digit lifeline. (NPR uses its first name only because of the stigma caused by mental health conditions.)

“I think it really depends on who’s working there, who’s answering the call, because there’s been a lot of times where the person wasn’t optimistic or didn’t believe me,” she says.

Although many of her calls on the line helped her, she said, once, in June 2021, she felt more despondent after speaking to the counselor on the line, and ended up attempting suicide.

And despite all of the network’s recent extra funding, calls over the weekend still take a long time to get answered, Diona says.

“Manpower remains a major issue and will remain so for the foreseeable future,” Miller notes. “Almost every state is looking to hire more professionals to hire more than 200 employees [call centers.]”

The pandemic has exacerbated a pre-existing shortage of mental health care providers and many call centers have had trouble hiring call center counselors. The level and quality of training counselors working on the phone lines also varies widely, according to mental health experts.

“I think if we don’t aggressively pursue solutions in hiring and retaining the workforce, we’re going to have much bigger problems in the future,” Miller says.

It’s a problem that HHS recognizes. Today, the agency also announced a new $35 million grant to support 988 services in tribal communities, where the need is great but access to care faces additional challenges. This new funding is specifically to add more trained advisors to meet the needs of tribal communities.

“The transition to the 988 is just the beginning,” Becerra said in a statement. “We will continue to work towards nationwide delivery of comprehensive and responsive crisis care services to save lives.”

Copyright NPR 2022.

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