The U.S. suicide hotline will roll out a new shortcut on July 16, allowing people in distress to simply dial 988 to reach an operator.
Since the number was approved by Congress in 2020, many states have struggled to implement a plan to meet the deadline to have it fully operational, and an extension, giving some states until July 24, has been adopted.
Among the issues reported in states like South Carolina is making sure crisis centers are equipped to handle the logistics of the new shortcut. At present, a person wanting to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has to call or text 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Texting 988 will eventually also connect someone with a mental health professional, but that option is still in development.
The difficulties in implementing the new system have not been unexpected, Dr. Jeff Goldfinger, CEO of Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services, told Yahoo News.
“Once upon a time, 911 was implemented, and it took a long time — 20 to 30 years — for people to kind of really bring it online nationally, everywhere,” Goldfinger said. “Now we just take for granted: a medical emergency — call 911.”
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network of more than 180 local, independent and state-funded crisis centers equipped with trained staff to help people who are experiencing a suicidal crisis.
Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services, one of the first of its kind in the nation, started a suicide hotline about 60 years ago, and, along with other organizations such as the National Council for Mental Wellbeing and the National Alliance on Mental Illness, was among those to advocate for an easy-to-use number like 911 for mental health crises.
“We realized we need to have an easy number to remember, especially in a type of mental health crisis,” Goldfinger said.
The 988 shortcut was approved when then-President Donald Trump signed the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act. The FCC then adopted rules that say “calls to 988 will be directed to 1-800-273-TALK, which will remain operational during and after the 988 transition.”
States will be individually responsible for implementing the new number, but just a small handful have passed legislation to address how that will happen.
“And that’s why we’ve been advocating so intensively with state governments to help to fund this. That was kind of the intention of the federal law — that states would take this on and make sure that we are funded to have the capacity to be there,” Goldfinger added.
In South Carolina, some mental health experts are highlighting the importance of 988 but also the lack of funding being allocated to make it operational.
“Our  plan is going to be active. Is it going to be fully staffed? Are we going to have two call centers? I’m not sure, and that’s the scary part,” Kelly Troyer, a mental health advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Charleston, told Yahoo News.
She said her state is one of the few that haven’t addressed the funding issue within the Legislature and knows more resources will be needed. Right now, she said, there’s only one call center in the state, in Greenville, and at least two will be needed when 988 goes into service. At present, Troyer said, South Carolina allocates between $3 million and $4 million for mental health services, but adding the 988 shortcut will mean the state could need upwards of $10 million per year.
“Imagine if you call 911 and you’re having a heart attack and no one answers or it says you’re the 10th caller in line or whatever. I mean, you don’t call it just for the hell of it,” Troyer said. “You call it because you need help. And so when someone is reaching out who is in a crisis and they’re brave enough to reach out for help, we definitely want someone to be able to answer in a short amount of time who is trained so it can save lives.”
While Wyoming’s Republican Gov. Mark Gordon has asked his state’s Legislature to include funding for the shortcut in its upcoming budget, California is setting aside $20 million to support call centers for the launch of 988, Reuters reported.
“Expanded access to mental health services is a central focus of the California Comeback Plan,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom said. “This $20 million investment is a critical first step to ensure crisis call centers have capacity and are equipped to help all callers so we can meet Californians where they are and expand resources and support during these difficult times.”
Federal help is also part of the nationwide plan. The Department of Health and Human Services said the Biden administration has allocated $282 million to help transition the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline from its 10-digit number to adding 988. The plan is for $177 million to help strengthen and expand the lifeline’s operations and infrastructure. The other $105 million will go to local crisis call centers across the states to help with staffing.
Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo, a Chicago-based clinical psychologist, entrepreneur and author of “Get Out of the Red Zone,” noted the toll that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on the mental health of many young people. A longtime advocate of increasing access to the suicide hotline, she has a simple motto: “If you think you need help, get the help,” she said.
“We know that suicide rates, at least suicidal ideation/thoughts, are certainly increasing. We know that rates to the emergency room for suicidal thoughts are certainly increasing in certain groups, like teenage girls,” Lombardo said. “But this pandemic has put a lot of people into a state of what I will call the ‘red zone,’ the psychological red zone, which, by the way, is when we’re at levels of distress. If it goes from zero to 10, it’s seven out of 10 or higher. And when we’re at those high levels of distress, our brain functions differently.”
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, according to figures from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. In 2019 alone, there were more than 47,500 deaths due to suicide nationwide.
For mental health professionals who have long sought to help guide people through difficult times, implementing the 988 shortcut can’t come soon enough.
“Here we have a specific group of trained individuals who can help in this dire need, and when someone is having suicidal ideation, suicidal plan, they really need someone who specializes in that,” Lombardo said.
Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images