Science

Advocates say the new 988 lifeline is seeing a big increase in calls – but concerns remain about police interference

National suicide lifeline number on July 16 converted to ten digits By Simple 988, hoping to make it easier for people in crisis to get help. Two months later, data shows there has been a significant increase in calls – but there has been a longstanding concern about the potential risk of police intervention in dire situations.

Data released by the US Department of Health and Human Services on September 9 showed that 45% more people approached the new national suicide lifeline in August 2022 than in the same month last year. More than 361,000 calls, texts and chats came through the service this August – 152,000 more than in 2021.

According to statistics, response rates and waiting times have improved, despite a sharp increase in individuals seeking help. Overall 88% of calls, chats and text messages were received in August, compared to 67% in August 2021. The average response time of 988 counselors was 42 seconds, compared to 2.5 minutes in August 2021.

Earlier this month, HHS also announced a $35 million grant opportunity to improve 988 lifeline services in Aboriginal communities. In a statement, HHS said the funding “will result in more trained crisis counselors being able to connect with even more people.” The grant is a piece of the $150 million that was assigned to 988 Lifeline under the bipartisan Safe Communities Act, which was signed into law in June.

According to CDC data, suicide was the 12th leading cause of death in the United States in 2020. The number is even more dire for some age groups, the CDC said: It was the second leading cause of death for 10 to 14-year-olds and 25 to 34-year-olds.

Though the call volume from the new Lifeline number has increased, there have been concerns about Lifeline on social media. Some are even discouraging people from calling, citing concerns about police involvement or the possibility of forced hospitalization in the most serious of situations.

Crisis counselors reach emergency services only “in cases where the risk of harm to self or others is imminent or in progress, and when a less aggressive plan to protect the caller/texter cannot be co-operated with the individual,” According to 988 Lifeline’s website. The website said that less than 2% of Lifeline calls were attended by emergency services, and more than half of them were with the caller’s consent.

But when police get involved in situations of mental health crisis, the consequences can be dire. Hannah Wesolowski, chief advocacy officer for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), told CBS News that police can rapidly escalate a situation when a person is in the midst of a mental health crisis.

,Someone in distress may not be able to understand or respond to orders that law enforcement may issue. “

According to a Washington Post log of fatal police shootings that began in 2015, more than 1 in 5 people killed by police had mental illnesses. According to the data, more than 1,600 people with mental illnesses have been shot and killed by active-duty officers since the database was launched.

Sally Ricketts, co-head of psychiatry at Bassett Healthcare Network, told CBS News: “One of the things we struggle with a lot in mental health is discrimination against people, or the stigma surrounding people with mental health problems. ” “And in a way, when you take something out like this, you’re identifying that population.”

NAMI created a portal where people can submit their crisis response stories. One of those people is Sonia, a mother from Georgia, who said she called the police on her son’s behalf before the three-digit lifeline was implemented. Police “found him and put him in jail,” she wrote. “He doesn’t deserve jail. He needs mental health support.”

In a blog post for the Well-Being Trust, a foundation dedicated to improving mental health, another woman said a telemedicine therapist she spoke to in 2021—who was not affiliated with Lifeline—had some of her conversations on 911. Called within minutes, even though he only shared “vague thoughts that were coming to make me hurt myself”. The woman said she spent four hours in the ER amid the COVID-19 pandemic before not committing suicide and being allowed to go home.

“When I think about my experience, I get angry,” she wrote, in a quote also submitted to the NAMI portal. “I think about how I, in a very vulnerable position, had to plead myself with the police to prevent my situation from escalating. I think about all those people, especially those of color. About people who did not have my presence and will not be in my mind during their moments of mental health crisis.”

Lifeline tries to connect callers to the nearest call center based on their area code – but it doesn’t always show a person’s current location. Unlike 911, 988 does not have access to the exact whereabouts of callers.

The Lifeline website notes that if necessary, “Lifeline counselors must provide 911 operators with the information they have — the caller’s/text user’s phone number or the chat user’s IP address — in order for them to locate the person.” also enables him to do it.”

Many advocates and mental health experts have said that in emergency situations mobile crisis teams should be sent instead to law enforcement. Teams, staffed by mental health professionals, are able to visit people in need of immediate support, mitigate crises, and connect people to crisis stabilization programs and other long-term resources.

Although the use of mobile crisis teams has expanded significantly across the United States in recent years, there are areas where they are not readily available.

HHS said the Biden administration has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to support the transition to 988, including the development of more crisis response teams. In September alone, the administration will fund $9 million in grants for states, territories, tribes, and public or private nonprofits to create or enhance existing mobile crisis response teams that support mental health in exchange for law enforcement or emergency medical responders. may respond to the crisis. ,” according to HHS.

Wesolowski said many people associated with NAMI have used the 988 lifeline and expressed relief that they were quickly helped and helped through crisis counselors. But he said that does not mean that the task of providing resources to those in distress is over.

“988 is part of this process and an entry point, but we need more crisis response,” Wesolowski said.

988 is not “mission accomplished,” she said — but noted that “six months from now, six months after that, we’re going to see many more crisis services online that will actually save lives.”


If you or someone you know is in emotional distress or suicidal ideation, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

For more information about mental health care resources and support, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Helpline Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET, reach 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) or email Can be visited at info@nami.org.

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