Suicide Prevention Hotline 9-8-8 Launches

By Dr. James Flowers, Ph.D., CSAT, LPC-S

suicide prevention hotline 9-8-8

Suicide Prevention Hotline 9-8-8 Launches

By Dr. James Flowers, Ph.D., CSAT, LPC-S

Table of Contents

In 2020, the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act passed and Congress amended the Communications Act of 1934 to designate 9–8–8 as the universal telephone number for the national suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline system. Congress noted the following:1

  1. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, on average, there are 129 suicides per day in the United States.
  2. To prevent future suicides, it is critical to transition the cumbersome, existing 10-digit National Suicide Hotline to a universal, easy-to-remember, 3-digit phone number and connect people in crisis with life-saving resources.
  3. It is essential that people in the United States have access to a 3-digit national suicide hotline across all geographic locations.
  4. The designated suicide hotline number will need to be both familiar and recognizable to all people in the United States.

The Impact of 9-8-8

Now, two years later, we mark a transformative point as the 9-8-8 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline number goes live to help Americans prevent suicide.2 Instead of dialing the previous 10-digit number, they can call or text the numbers 9-8-8. By creating this simple, easy-to-remember number, behavioral health is becoming more accessible to everyone.

 Currently, most people dial 9-1-1 and end up going to the hospital. The challenge is that 9-1-1 was not established for mental health needs. In addition, those in need of immediate attention end up in emergency rooms waiting for hours and sometimes days for care. Moreover, law enforcement usually interacts no matter if the person is violent or not, and this interaction can lead to additional trauma.  

The Story Of Miles Hall

Our law enforcement agencies are here to protect citizens, but some cases like that of Miles Hall, a 23-year-old African American man with schizophrenia, end in tragedy. Miles was killed by law enforcement while delusional.3

Hall began having mental health issues after high school and, in an attempt to keep him safe, Hall’s mother went to great lengths to form a relationship with the local police so they would be aware he was a resident of the neighborhood and not a threat.  Their family had lived in Walnut Creek, California since Miles was five years old. 

On June 2, 2019, Mile’s mother called 9-1-1 to tell them her son was delusional and had broken a door. When the police arrived, Miles was in the street holding a metal pole that had been used as a gardening tool. His delusion lead him to believe that he was Jesus and the pole was a “staff of God.” The police shot him despite the family’s objections.

Significant Federal Money Will Support 9-8-8

Scott and Taun Hall, Mike Hall’s parents, state that he needed compassion that day, not lethal force. And that is what suicide prevention hotline 9-8-8 represents. 

At a recent press briefing, Xavier Becerra, the secretary of health and human sciences said,  “If you are willing to turn to someone in your moment of crisis, 9-8-8 will be there. The number 9-8-8 won’t be a busy signal, and 988 won’t put you on hold. You will get help.”4

Congress has appropriated more than $400 million to provide support to call centers and increase the number of Spanish speakers. Since the 10-digit lifeline was launched in 2005, local call centers have received little federal funding despite increasing use.  In 2021, the lifeline received 3.6 million calls, chats, and texts.  Health officials project that the number of calls, chats, and texts will at least double in the next 12 months.

Who Should Call the Hotline And Who Answers?

The primary message we need to communicate over and over is “You’re not alone.”  If you are experiencing a mental health or substance use issue, you should call 9-8-8. You will be connected to a trained counselor at a crisis center closest to you. 

If the local crisis center is too busy to respond right away, the call gets routed to one of 16 backup centers around the country. Counselors who answer the line are equipped to handle a wide range of mental health issues. You can also call on behalf of a friend or loved one who is experiencing a mental health emergency.

Our Youth May Need 988 The Most

According to the CDC, suicide rates increased 30% between 2000–2018, and declined in 2019 and 2020.5 Despite this decline, suicide was still the second leading cause of death for people ages 10-14 and 25-34.

In April, the CDC released the Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey which shows that 44% of teens in the United States feel persistently sad and hopeless.  This number is an increase from 37% in 2019.  Additional data reveals that suicide rates increased among adolescents and young adults, black and Hispanic males, and multi-racial females during the pandemic.6

The Trevor Project also released its findings from its national survey in May 2022 which represents the experiences of almost 34,000 LGBTQ youth (ages 13-24).  Comparing data from the organization’s annual national surveys over the past three years, reports of seriously considering suicide among LGBTQ youth respondents have increased from 40% to 42% to 45%.7

The Facts about Suicide

  • Suicide happens every 11 minutes. 
  • Suicide is a leading cause of death in the United States, with 45,979 deaths in 2020. That year, an estimated 12.2 million adults seriously thought about suicide, 3.2 million made a plan, and 1.2 million attempted suicide
  • Suicide rates increased 30% between 2000–2018, and declined in 2019 and 2020
  • Suicide affects many age groups. In 2020, suicide was among the top 9 leading causes of death for people ages 10-64
  • Suicide was the second leading cause of death for people ages 10-14 and 25-34

How We Can Decrease Suicide Rates

Making a suicide hotline easily accessible is just part of the equation to decreasing suicide rates. As with all major public health crises, prevention is key. In 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) subject matter experts released the Preventing Suicide: A Technical Package of Policy, Program, and Practices.8

Key findings include strategies and approaches that lean upon local, state, and federal government as well as public health, education, healthcare, social services, business/labor, and justice sectors for implementation.  Seven key strategies are noted by the CDC:

  • Strengthen economic supports 
  • Strengthen access and delivery of suicide care
  • Create protective environments
  • Promote connectedness
  • Teach coping and problem-solving skills 
  • Identify and support people at risk
  • Lessen self-harm and prevent future risk

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