Since the launch of the new national Suicide & Crisis Lifeline number 988, North Carolina has experienced a 31 percent increase in calls for support. The introduction of the shortened number was aimed at making it as recognizable as the emergency number 911. When individuals call or send a text message to 988, they are connected to a counselor who will listen to their concerns, de-escalate the situation if possible, and provide them with community resources. Crisis counselors are also available for online chat in English and Spanish. The Biden Administration recently announced the addition of an American Sign Language feature to the 988 crisis line, with plans to include a video option in the future.
Although it may seem strange to celebrate an increase in calls to a suicide and crisis hotline, this rise was anticipated as more people become aware of the service. Mental health advocates want individuals to know about and utilize the emergency intervention system provided by 988, especially considering the current mental health crisis in the United States. By analyzing the first-year data, mental health providers and advocates gain insight into what is working and where improvements can be made. In North Carolina, the top three reasons people contact 988 are interpersonal issues, depression, and anxiety. Additionally, individuals can connect with specialized crisis lines for military veterans and their families, the LGBTQ community, and Spanish speakers through 988.
The increase in connections to the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is seen as a positive development by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Through 988, crisis counselors have been able to direct individuals to resources in their community, including mobile crisis management services, that they may not have been aware of otherwise. North Carolina’s 988 call center in Greenville has reported an average answering speed of 19 seconds, faster than the national average of 41 seconds. However, there have been instances where individuals have had to wait longer to connect to a counselor.
Text and chat services provided by 988 are particularly important for reaching young people in the midst of the current youth mental health crisis. Of the chats and texts received in North Carolina during the first year, 39 percent came from individuals between the ages of 13 and 24. However, a nationwide poll revealed that 82 percent of Americans are unfamiliar with the new mental health and suicide crisis lifeline, highlighting a need for greater awareness among individuals of all age groups.
One advantage of the 988 crisis line is that it offers help without immediate police involvement. This is significant as studies have shown that individuals with mental illness are more likely to be injured during encounters with law enforcement. People with untreated mental illness are also more likely to be killed by police. However, it is important to note that there is still a possibility of police involvement if the caller is deemed to be in imminent danger and unable or unwilling to agree to a safety plan to prevent suicide. While law enforcement officers responded in 124 cases out of the 73,465 contacts made to the North Carolina 988 call center in the first year, 365 contacts resulted in referrals to in-person mobile crisis teams.
A majority of people prefer individuals with mental health expertise, rather than law enforcement, to respond to mental health crises. This preference is even higher among Black respondents, those who identify as part of the LGBTQ community, and individuals who have received treatment from a mental health provider in the past. Limited mental health resources and crisis response teams in many communities present challenges for the 988 counselors, as they may not always have suitable options to direct callers to. The goal moving forward is to ensure that everyone receives a true mental health response and has access to the appropriate resources in their community.
While the focus is on promoting the new 988 number, it’s essential to remember that the previous Suicide & Crisis Lifeline number (800-273-TALK) is still operational and individuals can continue to use it. The key is to encourage individuals in crisis to reach out for help, regardless of which number they dial.