It is no secret that there is an increased demand for mental health services across the nation. Fortunately, talking about mental health more openly is much more normalized than it once was. Public figures are increasingly sharing their experiences with mental health and substance use disorders (SUDs), inspiring others to seek help. The rise of telemedicine has made it easier for a broader population to access services. Unprecedented events and changes have placed heightened levels of stress on people who were already stretched too thin.
The Need for Immediate Help
The demand is certainly there, but will everybody who needs services actually receive them? It is common to be put on a waitlist when scheduling a new patient appointment. This can range from weeks to months. When a person reaches out for mental health services, they generally do not have the same mentality as when scheduling a yearly physical or dental cleaning. The issues they have are usually more acute. It may not just be disappointing to be placed on a waitlist but genuinely devastating.
Reaching out for help can be extremely difficult for people. There is a prevalent stigma surrounding mental health that remains intact despite the increasing mainstream recognition of mental health conditions. This stigma can come from certain family, cultural, or regional beliefs and be deeply ingrained. It may discourage individuals from seeking professional mental health treatment because they believe it will brand them as weak or less than.
For people who are most impacted by these beliefs and who have the hardest time reaching out, the fact that they actually have decided to initiate treatment might mean that they are in a dire place. Some people need immediate access to services in order to stay safe; cold-calling multiple providers only to be greeted with voicemails can exacerbate the pain.
In this time of tremendous need, a new solution has been recently implemented. It intends to connect those with the most critical needs to appropriate services. On July 16, 2022, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline was given a new three-digit number: 988. The original phone number was 1-800-273-8255, which can still be used. However, 988 was intended to be easy to remember and dial, like 911.
Calling or texting 988 will route the caller to their nearest crisis center, connecting to local crisis services. The lifeline is one number that ties together a network of crisis centers operating at the local level. If one center cannot be reached due to heavy call volume, there are backup centers that the call can be rerouted to. Those who answer the phone are trained to guide a caller to a safer place, assess for risk, and coordinate emergency or follow-up services as needed.
Despite the name, people can call the lifeline even if they don’t actively have thoughts of taking their own life. Any mental health crisis, including a substance abuse crisis, is a valid reason to call. In addition to calling or texting, there is a third option to chat with a crisis counselor. This can be done through 988lifeline.org/chat.
Implementing 988 was one of the most significant changes to mental health policy in recent history. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline went live in 2005, expanding its capabilities and reach since. A Veterans Crisis Line was added to that number in 2007, while a Disaster Distress Helpline was implemented in 2015 with a separate phone number of 1-800-985-5990. Spanish language capabilities were also added to the NSPL, and chat and text services now augment the lifeline.
The move to designate a convenient three-digit number began in 2018 with the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act. This legislation sought to investigate whether a three-digit number would be plausible to achieve. Then the National Suicide Designation Act of 2020 was introduced, which required the dialing of 988 to connect to the NSPL within two years.
Data from August 2022 shows that there was a 45% increase in calls, texts, and chats when compared to the same time a year prior. There has also been an improvement in the answer rate and waiting times, overall improving the caller experience. In fact, previous waiting times averaged under three minutes but have been cut down to an average of 42 seconds. More people are utilizing the Lifeline with 988 and are being connected more quickly and efficiently in times of need. Research has demonstrated that connecting with a crisis worker over the lifeline decreases feelings of depression and suicidality while offering hope.
There has been concern about the current mental health infrastructure’s ability to handle the increased volume of 988 in the United States. Just changing a number does not fix systematic issues that have been perpetuated by understaffing and underfunding. Fortunately, there has been an uptick in government funding to improve this infrastructure and continue the early success 988 has had.
There are many reasons why a person might need immediate mental health services. They may be dealing with suicidal ideation that is putting their life at risk. Their depression or anxiety may get too intense for them to handle on their own. Family and relationship issues might be cascading out of control. Their substance use may be getting out of hand or even reaching the point of crisis. Individuals in these circumstances need prompt and effective support to guide them out of that crisis headspace and to safety. For people living with substance use disorder, all of the situations described above may apply, and it is vital to have a supportive team to help. At Family-Centered Services, we are dedicated to helping individuals and families navigate addiction and co-occurring conditions before reaching the point of crisis. Call (509) 991-5822 to learn how our licensed clinicians can help.