When Jamieson Brill answers a crisis call from a Spanish speaker on the newly launched national 988 mental health helpline, he rarely mentions the word suicide, or “suicidio." Brill, whose family hails from Puerto Rico, knows that just discussing the term in some Spanish-speaking cultures is so frowned on that many callers are too scared to admit that they’re calling for themselves. “However strong stigma around mental health concerns is in English-speaking cultures, in Spanish-speaking cultures it is triple that,” said Brill, who helps people navigate mental health crises from a tiny brick building in Hyattsville, Md., the Associated Press reports. Brill works in one of more than 200 call centers around the U.S. tasked with answering an uptick in calls day and night from people considering suicide or experiencing a mental health emergency. With bipartisan congressional support and just under $1 billion in federal funds, the 988 mental health helpline has quickly expanded its reach in the six months since it launched, with over 2 million calls, texts and chat messages pouring in.
The number of centers answering calls in Spanish grew from three to seven last year. A pilot line dedicated to LGBTQ youth started taking calls in September. Plans are underway to keep the momentum going, with the federal government adding Spanish language chat and text options later this year and aiming to expand those services to a 24/7 operation for the LGBTQ line. When the around-the-clock service launched last summer, it built on the existing network that staffed the old national lifeline, 1-800-273-8255. The new 988 number is designed to be as easy to remember as 911. It couldn’t have come at a more needed time: Depression rates in U.S. adults, overdose deaths and suicide rates have been on the rise.“The call volume is, in some instances, well beyond what we anticipated,” said Miriam Delphin-Rittmon of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “It does let us know that people are struggling, people are having a hard time. Where I feel heartened is that people are getting connected to services and supports, as opposed to struggling on their own.”