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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Hannah Wesolowski: The proof is in the numbers: 988 will save lives

By Hannah Wesolowski Special to the Washington Post

For too long, there hasn’t been an easy, safe way for someone experiencing suicidal thoughts or a mental health crisis to get immediate help. Fortunately, that appears to be changing thanks to 988.

988, which became available nationwide earlier this summer, is a dedicated number that anyone can contact for mental health, substance use and suicidal crises. When Congress and the Federal Communications Commission designated it as an emergency line in 2020, there were questions about why the number was needed and how effective it would be. But now, we have data to support the resource: Demand for help is high, and the number is giving thousands of people the assistance they need.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimated that contact volume to 988 will more than double in its first year. The latest data since the July 16 transition shows the number of contacts to 988 via call, text and chat in August increased 45% over August 2021 – an increase of 152,000 contacts. That is 152,000 more people getting help when they need it most.

This significant increase in contacts has occurred even before there has been any wide-scale public awareness campaign to promote 988, so the number of contacts will probably continue to grow.

Fortunately, in the lead-up to 988’s availability, call centers and state leaders rose to the challenge to meet the increased need. The average answer time across calls, texts and chats is decreasing, and answer rates are increasing, with 20 states answering more than 90% of in-state calls in August compared with just seven in January.

This has real benefits. 988 connects people with trained crisis counselors who can actively engage callers and resolve crises over the phone. This reduces the need for an in-person response, which has historically been conducted by law enforcement (contributing to high rates of incarceration of people with mental illness).

Research has repeatedly shown that receiving support over the phone can reduce suicide risk. It can also help connect people with more mental health services to get well and stay well.

988’s success gives us a historic opportunity to reimagine how we respond to people in a mental health crisis, and it couldn’t be more timely. The United States is in the midst of a mental health emergency. American adults are experiencing a threefold increase in symptoms of anxiety and depression compared with 2019. One American dies by suicide every 11 minutes.

The stats for our youth are especially dire. The number of adolescents going to emergency departments with suspected suicide attempts has skyrocketed, increasing by more than 31% between 2019 and 2021. At my organization, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, we witness daily what the human impact of these numbers is on individuals, families, friends and communities across our country.

As we mark Suicide Prevention Awareness Month this month, we owe it to our loved ones and our communities to recognize the urgent need and unprecedented opportunity we have in front of us. With the transition to 988 to access mental health and suicide emergency care, we have the potential to fundamentally transform our crisis response and save lives – but only if we continue to act.

Indeed, our work is just beginning. We need to build a full continuum of crisis services around 988 in every community. Every call, text or chat needs to be answered by a local call center with culturally competent resources.

And for those who need more help, there should be an in-person mental health crisis response team available to provide appropriate, safe and effective care.

Far too often, we’ve seen mental health initiatives begin with great promise, only to fall short due to the lack of investment. 988 is a huge step forward, but we can’t stop halfway when lives are on the line. With continued investment and focus, 988 can be transformative.

Right now, mental health is a bright spot of policy cooperation and bipartisanship. In the 2021 budget, the lifeline received just $24 million. That investment has grown to more than $250 million in 2022, and President Joe Biden has requested nearly $700 million for 988 and crisis services in 2023.

That money would not only help build up 988 capacity but also support a full crisis continuum of care.

The challenge is to build on the success of the 988 rollout, both at the federal and state levels. This effort will prevent more lives from being tragically lost every day. We can and must provide the hope of a brighter tomorrow for anyone who is struggling.

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat

Hannah Wesolowski is chief advocacy officer of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

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