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Jan. 27, 2023

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In Our View: 988 hotline plays key role in mental health care

The Columbian

Months after it was launched, a national 988 suicide prevention hotline represents an important step toward dealing with the United States’ mental health crisis.

Suicide prevention hotlines have been available for years, but it wasn’t until July that they were consolidated under an easily remembered three-digit number. By calling 988, people in crisis can speak with a person who is trained to listen and help them work through suicide ideation.

This direct contact has clear benefits.

A 2016 study found that on more than three-quarters of calls, crisis counselors succeeded in getting the caller to seek further assistance. On approximately one-fifth of imminent risk calls, counselors dispatched emergency services with the approval of the caller.

As the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline reports: “When people call, text, or chat 988, they will be connected to trained counselors that are part of the existing network. These trained counselors will listen, understand how their problems are affecting them, provide support, and connect them to resources if necessary.”

In 2020, Congress approved the 988 number as a complement to 911 for emergency services. The following year, the Washington Legislature passed House Bill 1477 to implement the hotline using a tax on phone and internet lines. As the state Department of Health reports: “You can dial 988 if you are having: Thoughts of suicide; mental health crises; substance use concerns; any other kind of emotional distress. You can also dial 988 if you are worried about a loved one who may need crisis support.”

The timing could not be better, with the COVID-19 pandemic bringing increased attention to the state of Americans’ mental health. As economic stress and isolation accompanied the early months of the pandemic, the need for robust mental health care was highlighted.

Recent studies show that American adults are experiencing a threefold increase in symptoms of anxiety and depression compared with 2019, and one American dies by suicide every 11 minutes. It also should be noted that more than half of gun deaths in the United States are suicides.

The statistics for young people are even more disturbing. In a recent opinion piece for The Washington Post, Hannah Wesolowski of the National Alliance on Mental Illness writes: “The number of adolescents going to emergency departments with suspected suicide attempts has skyrocketed, increasing by more than 31 percent between 2019 and 2021. . . . We witness daily what the human impact of these numbers is on individuals, families, friends and communities across our country.”

The 988 hotline can play an important role in dealing with this crisis. In August, contacts to the service showed an increase of 45 percent over August 2021, before the establishment of a national system. And this is before a concerted effort to raise public awareness of the system.

But more work is required. In Washington, 90 percent of calls to the hotline were answered in August. Our state was one of 20 to reach the 90 percent threshold, which could be seen as a success. But for 10 percent of people in crisis who reached out, it is an abject failure.

In 2021, the national lifeline received $24 million in the federal budget. That grew to $250 million this year, and President Joe Biden has requested $700 million for 988 and crisis services for 2023.

When talking about the lives of Americans in despair, that seems like a small price to pay.