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Can New 988 Number Handle The U.S. Suicide Crisis?

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — the number posted on student ID cards, atop Google search results and in warning labels on television shows — is about to get a major reboot as the 911 for mental health. With an infusion of federal money, the Lifeline starting in July will have its own three-digit number, 988, and operators who will not only counsel callers but eventually be equipped to dispatch specially trained responders.

That will reduce interventions by armed law enforcement and reliance on emergency rooms and keep more people alive, advocates tell the New York Times.

Concerns are growing that the 24-hour hotline, already straining to meet demand, will not be able to deliver on the promises of the overhaul unless states supplement the federal money with significant funds for staffing.

The crisis line is answered by a patchwork national network of more than 180 call centers, often nonprofits, that juggle several hotlines and rely on paid counselors and volunteers. Most centers run on shoestring budgets, with little or no backing from states; many do not have funding specifically for answering Lifeline calls. Some use golf outings, benefit breakfasts and other fund-raisers to help pay the bills.

After the number changes to 988, use of the hotline is expected to grow exponentially over the next few years. The current number is 800-273-8255.

Already, of the approximately two million phone calls to the Lifeline last year, about 330,000 — roughly 17 percent — were abandoned before a caller could get help. The texting and online chat lines, which together fielded another million contacts last year, lagged further behind, not attending to 41 percent of texts and 73 percent of chats.

The only call center in South Carolina until recently operated out of an old, dark basement, near a boiler room. The last remaining one in Louisiana has struggled to keep up with an influx of calls after another center closed and its replacement went offline during the pandemic. Minnesota and Wyoming have had periods with no centers at all.

The changes at the Lifeline come at a time of growing mental health concerns exacerbated by the pandemic, including what the U.S. surgeon general has warned is a crisis among young people. Suicides in the U.S. have increased over the past two decades to about 45,000 a year.


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