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Need Help or Worried About Someone? Dial 988

On July 16, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline switched from a full phone number to just 3 digits: 988. After the number upgrade, call volume rose 45%.

WASHINGTON – The rollout of 988 as the new National Suicide Prevention Lifeline may have saved 150,000 more lives in one month than it would have before the transition, according to data released last week.

The initiative has been in the works for years, but the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration finally launched the new number on July 16, replacing the old 10-digit number, 1-800-273-8255.

In a statement last week, the Department of Health and Human Services released data showing a 45% increase in overall volume last month compared with August 2021, representing 152,000 more contacts that include calls, chats and texts.

The agency also reported a significant reduction in response times, plunging from 2.5 minutes to 42 seconds.

“Our nation’s transition to 988 moves us closer to better serving the crisis care needs of people across America,” said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, “988 is more than a number, it’s a message: We’re there for you.”

Suicide is one of the country’s leading causes of death for people aged 10 to 34 years old, according to SAMHSA, with the country reporting one death every 11 minutes in 2020.

Although they’re glad to see progress, health experts say there’s still more that needs to be done in order to catch up with the nation’s growing mental health crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Annually, the mental health in the U.S. has been declining, (and) what COVID has done is send that into a tail-spin,” said Dr. Rheeda Walker, an expert on mental health and suicide prevention, and a psychology professor at the University of Houston. “Having an opportunity to be able to speak to someone who is going to be non-judgmental … it’s immeasurable in how important that is.”

As 988 becomes a recognized number like 911, health experts warn sustaining higher call volumes and reduced wait times will require more people answering the phone, which may become an issue as the program seeks to expand.

“What we’re seeing in the mental health field as part of the mental health crisis is that there’s a shortage of providers,” said Dr. Amanda Fialk, mental health expert and chief clinical officer at The Dorm, a telehealth platform for young adults. “There’s more people who need help than there are people who can provide help.”

Experts say more funding will be needed to not only hire existing mental health providers, but also to recruit and offer training to those interested in the profession.

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