The new 988 mental health crisis line has seen increased use since its inception: Shots

A bookmark of the 988 emergency number for suicide and crisis situations displayed by a Natrona County Suicide Prevention Task Force volunteer in Casper, Wyoming on August 14, 2022.

PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

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PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

A bookmark of the 988 emergency number for suicide and crisis situations displayed by a Natrona County Suicide Prevention Task Force volunteer in Casper, Wyoming on August 14, 2022.

PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

The new 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is already reaching more Americans in need — and connecting them to help faster — than the old 10-digit suicide prevention line it replaced on July 16.

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

The number of calls answered rose from 141,400 to 216,000 — a more than 50% increase, HHS officials said. And the number of text messages answered increased by a whopping 1000% – from 3,400 in August 2021 to 39,900 in August this year. The number of answered chats on Lifeline’s website increased by 195%.

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

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

“As far as data points go, that’s good news,” he says. “People use the line, which is what we want. She will help save lives, which is what we want.”

Particularly encouraging is the data showing people are waiting less to connect to a trained advisor at one of the more than 200 call centers that make up the national 988 network, he adds.

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

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

The Biden administration has invested historic amounts in improving 988 infrastructure, and much of the money has gone into setting up new backup call centers as well as hiring more call-answering staff in the existing call centers.

“I don’t really know how this is going to play out over time, but to see such a huge increase I have to attribute it to the fact that there are more resources, which means more call center staff, which means more opportunities to develop the appropriate infrastructure means to reach people faster,” says Miller.

Kelly Diana41, a Baltimore resident and mental health advocate, says she’s used this suicide prevention line several times, particularly during the pandemic when she’s had frequent panic attacks.

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

But while 988 is certainly helping more people overall, we don’t yet know how the system is doing in each state, Miller warns. The newly released data is not broken down by state.

“There will be massive differences between the states,” he says.

While the 988 Lifeline is accessible nationwide with a national network of call centers, it essentially functions as a government-run system. And states vary wildly in how much they’ve invested in the former 10-figure Lifeline and related services. According to a recent Analysis by the National Institute of Mental Illnessvery few states have passed legislation to supplement recent federal funding in 988.

So it’s important to see how each state is doing to understand which states need more help and funding, and in what ways, Miller explains.

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

Diona has long struggled with suicidal thoughts and attempts and is a frequent caller to 988 and the former 10-digit lifeline. (NPR only uses her first name because of the stigma surrounding mental illness.)

“I think it really depends on who works there who answers the call,” she says, “because there were a couple of times that person wasn’t hopeful or didn’t believe me.”

Though many of her phone calls have helped her on the line, she said that once in June 2021, after speaking to the counselor on the line, she felt even more hopeless and ended up attempting suicide.

And despite the network’s recent additional funding, it still takes a long time to get calls answered at weekends, says Diona.

“Human resources remain an important issue and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future,” notes Miller. “Almost every state is looking for more skilled workers to fill the 200+ [call centers.]”

The pandemic has exacerbated a pre-existing shortage of mental health providers, and many call centers have struggled to hire call center counselors. The level and quality of the training counselors who man the phone lines also varies widely, according to mental health experts.

“I think if we don’t aggressively look for solutions to recruit and retain workers, we’re going to have much bigger problems down the road,” Miller says.

It’s an issue that HHS recognizes. Today, the agency also announced a new $35 million grant to support 988 services in tribal communities where needs are high but access to care presents additional challenges. This new funding is specifically to add more trained advisors to address the needs of tribal communities.

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

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