More People Are Using the 988 Suicide and Crisis Hotline Since It Switched from a 10-Digit Number

·4 min read
Woman Talking On The Phone
Woman Talking On The Phone

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On July 16, 2022, the U.S. transitioned from a 10-digit phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to the easy-to-remember three-digit 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. In the month since the switch was made, there has been a 45 percent increase in call volume to the new, shorter number, according to data shared by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in a recent press release. There has also been a "substantial improvement in answer rates and wait times" compared to August of 2021, it reports. This comes after increased funding from the Biden-Harris Administration for more language access and staffing at call centers.

"We want everyone to know that there is hope," said Miriam E. Delphin-Rittmon, Ph.D, HHS Assistant Secretary for mental health and substance use and leader of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), in the statement. "Whether you're experiencing thoughts of suicide, a mental health or substance use crisis, or any other kind of emotional distress, there is compassionate, accessible care and support," she continued. "With rising levels of anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses — and the devastating number of overdose deaths — it is crucial that people have somewhere to turn when they're in crisis."

Related: Free Mental Health Services That Offer Affordable and Accessible Support

The increase in call volume "means more people are seeking help, and that is an extremely good sign," Meghan Marcum, Psy.D., chief psychologist at AMFM Mental Health Treatment Centers, tells Shape. "We know suicide rates have been increasing and the pandemic contributed to feelings of loneliness and isolation. The fact that people are calling means they feel they have access to resources that might help them during especially critical times," she says. "When people talk about feelings of suicide, at least a part of them is looking for help, and that is something that trained counselors on the other end of the line can offer."

Marcum also points out that fear of police interaction or hospitalization due to calling a crisis hotline is a common misconception that may keep people from using the resource. "This is not the goal of the crisis counselors," she says. "In fact, they seek to minimize police involvement and de-escalate the situation to the best of their ability. It's only during a life-threatening emergency that first responders may be asked to provide support."

The new 988 number may help decrease these fears, according to Tonja Myles, a 988 spokeswoman. "Historically, when communities of color are in crisis, we don't call crisis lines," she said in a July 6, 2022 press release. "We need to tell Black people that the crisis line can be trusted — the operators are there to help and treat you as if you are in a crisis, not as if you're a criminal," she continued. An alternative to 911 in a mental health crisis, the 988 hotline may encourage more people to reach out for help.

Related: Sara Ramírez Opened Up About Calling a Suicide Hotline In 2020

"Talking about mental health issues such as suicide, addiction, trauma, and other issues is an important step to reducing the stigma associated with mental health," adds Marcum. "In the near future, I would love to see mental health education be a standard part of the curriculum taught in schools. If we had some of the basic information about how to prioritize mental health, we may be able to reduce the rates of depression and anxiety in youth or young adults."

As both the HHS press release and Marcum allude to, research has shown an uptick in mental health issues among adults and young people in recent years. For instance, the COVID-19 pandemic had a negative impact on people's mental health and lead to an increase in alcohol and drug use, a 2020 national survey on drug use and health conducted by SAMHSA found. Additionally, the pandemic lead to a 25 percent increase in anxiety and depression worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

Related: 5 Ways to Support a Loved One Struggling with Depression

With this in mind, improvements to how the U.S. provides resources to those struggling with mental health, such as the new 988 hotline, are more important than ever. New data that suggests more people are utilizing the free resource to get help in a crisis is certainly promising.

If you or someone you know needs help, please call 988 for the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline or text 741741, or chat online at 988lifeline.org.