When Jamieson Brill answers a distress call from a Spanish-speaking 988 mental health helpline — a service launched in the United States six months ago — she rarely mentions the word “suicide.”
Brill, whose family is from Puerto Rico, knows that even mentioning the word is so frowned upon in some Spanish-speaking cultures that many callers are afraid to even admit they’re asking for help on their own.
“As strong as the stigma about mental health issues is in English-speaking cultures, it’s three times as much in Spanish-speaking cultures,” says Brill, who has lived through the health crisis from a small, hidden brick building in Hyattsville, Maryland. Let’s help people.
Brill works at one of more than 200 call centers across the United States responding to a surge in calls — day and night — from people contemplating suicide or experiencing another mental health emergency.
With bipartisan support from Congress and just under $1 billion in federal funding, the 988 mental health helpline has rapidly expanded its reach in the six months since it launched: more than 2 million calls, message texts and chat conversations. With.
The number of centers answering calls in Spanish increased from three last year to seven. A pilot line dedicated to youth in the LGBTQ community began receiving calls in September. Plans are underway to continue that momentum, and the federal government will add the option for chat and text messages in Spanish later this year. It also aims to expand those services into a 24/7 operation for the LGBTQ line.
When the 24-hour service was launched last summer, it built on an existing network with staff who answered the old national helpline: 1-800-273-8255. The new number 988 is designed to be just as easy to remember as the 911 before it.
It couldn’t come at a more urgent time: Depression rates, drug overdose deaths, and suicide rates among adults in the United States are on the rise.
“In some cases, the volume of calls is much higher than we anticipated,” says Miriam Delphin-Ritmon, assistant secretary for mental health and substance abuse at the U.S. Department of Health (HHS). “It shows us that people are in trouble, that people are going through difficult times. What encourages me is that people are connecting to services and support rather than fighting on their own,” she adds .
As per the latest data available, the 988 National Helpline recorded 154,585 more calls, text and chat conversations during November 2022 as compared to the old National Helpline in November 2021.
Texting has been particularly popular, with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reporting a 1,227% increase in text messages during the same time period.
According to the U.S. Department of Public Affairs, the Veterans Crisis Line—accessed by texting or calling 988 after pressing the number 1—has received 450,000 calls, text messages and chat conversations. By the end of the year, the line had achieved nearly 10% growth compared to 2021.
The calls show no sign of abating this year with advisors answering 3,869 calls on New Year’s Eve and the first day of 2023 – a 30% increase over last year’s holiday. The Spanish line experienced an increase of 3,800 calls from November 2021 to November 2022.
Meanwhile, some states are considering making their calls focused on certain communities.
In November, Washington became the first US state to launch a mental health hotline focused on Alaska Natives and other Native Americans. Callers in Washington can access the hotline by dialing 988 and then pressing the 4 key to be answered by one of 13 counselors—all of them Indigenous—who answer the phone.
The fact that descendants of native tribes are answering those calls is important, because people who are familiar with their culture can immediately understand some of the words that others can’t, Rochelle Williams, Volunteers of America West Washington explains the Tribal Operations Manager. (United States) Volunteers of Western Washington), who oversee the call center. For example, he says, when a caller says a family member is “harassing me,” that sends up an immediate red flag: The caller is indicating they’re being sexually assaulted.
“Who has a better understanding of Native Americans than Native Americans themselves?” Williams adds. “We don’t trust a lot of government programs. Knowing you’re talking to another Indigenous person is really, really important.”
Williams now wants to add chat and text options. He hopes Washington’s 988 line for American Indians will become a role model for others. It has already appeared in New Mexico, Oklahoma, Montana and Canada, which will launch its national 988 service this year.
States are expected to receive more money to fund the phone from the $1.7 trillion year-end budget, which has set aside $500 million for the project.
Still, long-term funding for the 988 helpline is in jeopardy in some states, which have yet to come up with a permanent funding plan for it. While the federal government invested millions of dollars in the project, states are expected to take over the operation and funding of the 988 line, as they do with the services of calls to the 911 emergency number.
So far, fewer than 20 states have passed laws to permanently fund their 988 lines, according to the National Coalition on Mental Health Illness.
In Ohio, for example, supporters of these initiatives are pushing for the state legislature to pass a 50 percent fee on cell phone bills to raise $50 million to $55 million each year, said Tony Kodner of the Ohio Foundation. . suicide prevention.
“Literally, lives depend on it,” Kodner warned. “The need for 988 services is more important than ever, just in the aftermath of COVID and because of mental health issues.”