A three-digit phone number that will debut next month seeks to change the conversation about suicide, a leading cause of death, and reduce the stigma around seeking help with mental illness.
In Philadelphia and nationally, help will be available by calling 988, the mental health crisis hotline that will go live on July 16. It seeks to replicate the easy-to-remember emergency 911 training to prevent suicide.
Nobody expects people to know the ten-digit number of their local police station in the event of an emergency, explains Matthew Winterstein, a clinical psychologist at Thomas Jefferson University. “When someone is in a crisis, they should be able to easily reach out, who do I contact? Where can I go? The idea is that 988 will become that number.
Experts say drawing more attention to suicide treatment is a mental health milestone. Lots of logistics already in place: The new number will be routed to crisis centers that are currently responding to calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, now at 1-800-273-8255 (1-800-273-TALK).
“It’s a really big change in the approach for people with mental health crises,” said Jill Bowen, Philadelphia Commissioner for Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services.
The number of people dying by suicide is increasing Over the past two decades in Pennsylvania and nationally, it has ranked The second leading cause of death For people aged 10 to 34, according to the latest stats From the National Institute of Mental Health.
in 2020, Nearly 1,700 people died by suicide in Pennsylvania. This represents a 10 percent decrease from the previous year, despite concerns that the pandemic could lead to an increase in suicide deaths, 22 percent above the average during the 1990s.
Experts say advocating a lifeline for suicide prevention could save lives.
“When you contact someone who has been trained as a professional counselor, they are able to help instill hope,” said Dale Adair, MD, chief psychiatrist for the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services. “The person receiving the call is able to help the person come up with a safety plan.”
Experts say the vast majority of problems can be resolved over the phone without any additional intervention at the time. On the rest of the calls, the responding person can deploy a crisis response team, make a referral, or call 911 if needed.
In Philadelphia, 988 is part of a larger effort called the city’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Services, Crisis 2.0. It included expanding the capacity of Philadelphia’s crisis call center — which now averages about 188 calls a day, according to the city administration — and capacity Mobile Community Crisis Response Teams.
Origin 988 in The National Suicide Hotline Appointment Act of 2020which sets the 988 launch date when countries should be ready to answer calls.
The law also directs states to introduce legislation to ensure the financing of a communication service – such as charging a communication fee or setting up a trust fund. according to National Alliance on Mental IllnessHowever, the majority of states have not introduced 988 legislation, and only a few have actually enacted them.
“988 is one of the biggest things that has happened in the mental health system for a very long time,” said Kristen Michaels, chief executive of the organization’s Pennsylvania branch.
Pennsylvania has not yet acted on the new law, but it does have a system of 13 crisis call centers funded by a mix of federal, state and local sources.
Pennsylvania call centers currently respond to about 85% of calls within the state to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The rest is answered outside the country. That’s close to the 90% response rate in the state that the federal government hopes to see with the 988.
The new number won’t be widely promoted nationwide for a year, so any operating kinks can be addressed.
in Valley Creek Crisis Center in Exton, one of Pennsylvania’s 13 crisis call centers that will receive 988 calls, little change is expected immediately. The center is already receiving calls from all over Chester County – through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline but primarily through the county crisis line (610-280-3270).
“I don’t think on July 17 we’re going to suddenly get another 300 to 400 calls,” said Sonya Kenny, director of crisis services, who expects the service to grow in time.
Some hope 988 is a national incentive to expand services to help.
Within Pennsylvania, services available for unresolved calls over the phone—or provide services to refer people to At times when demand exceeds supply It varies depending on where people live. “Some communities have very strong mobile response teams — and they tend to be located in areas like Philadelphia or Pittsburgh — but the demand for them may also be higher,” said Kristen Houser, deputy secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.
There are also disparities between call centers. Philadelphia and Exton are doing well, but other centers across the state are struggling to staff — which means they cannot answer within the state all existing calls and may delay further as the 988 is upgraded and the volume of calls increases. For example, True North Wellness Services, a call center in rural Hanover, York, employs about half of the staff it needs, According to WESA.
Pennsylvania received a $3.2 million grant in April From the federal government to help build call center capacity.
Mike Schlossberg, a Lee County Democrat who has been open about his own past struggles with depression, said Representative. “There really is a great moment here.”