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What to Consider Before Celebrating the Future 3-Digit Suicide Hotline

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On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously to approve 988 as the new suicide prevention lifeline number. It is estimated that 988 will be replacing the current 1-800-273-8255 number in July of 2022.

While many in the mental health space are celebrating this news, we need to talk about how a new number fails to address many issues. Perhaps the most alarming is how many individuals have expressed that hotlines have failed to provide them with the support they needed, and some individuals are on hold for wait times that can be up to half an hour or even more than that.

While the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the umbrella organization that covers this network of crisis centers, does have a list of requirements for a crisis center to become part of the network, the requirements themselves don’t cover much. Each center is required to receive certification or accreditation from at least one of a list of eight different organizations, or local state/county licensure. Those answering calls are required to have, “basic training,” yet there is no specification of what that training has to cover. They must also be able to provide referrals to service organizations, complete a risk assessment and follow specific guidelines for callers deemed to be at imminent risk. Ultimately, these guidelines offer no specific guidance for how operators are trained to support an individual in crisis other than active engagement and potentially active rescue for callers deemed to be at imminent risk.

Realistically, different people have different needs when they are in crisis, so it is understandable that there may not be a sole set of guidelines for how to support callers in crisis, but the amount of individuals who express a lack of support from their experiences with the Lifeline proves that something needs to change. Callers who are not at imminent risk need a resource that consistently provides more support than referrals to outside organizations, and callers who are at imminent risk needs a resource that tries more than one potential approach before resorting to active rescue. All callers need a resource that they can rely on to take their call promptly and not leave them on hold for half an hour or longer.

Ultimately, the new number increases accessibility, but what good is increased accessibility of a resource that may or may not actually support those who need it?

As an advocate with lived experience myself, I know a lot of people who have experienced suicidality and many who have reached out to the Lifeline for support, yet few have expressed having a positive experience with the Lifeline. That isn’t to say that they don’t exist, but it is to say that there is clearly a problem here.

We celebrate increases in the number of calls made to the Lifeline, yet we don’t even know how many of those calls actually made the caller feel supported. We celebrate increased accessibility, yet we don’t know if callers are benefiting from access to the resource.

This isn’t intended to be an attack on the Lifeline itself, but instead to shed light on the lack of support that exists for individuals experiencing a suicidal crisis as a whole. The Lifeline is undeniably one of the most frequently mentioned resources for individuals in crisis, and at the end of the day, I have no doubt that it has saved lives. Still, it leaves much to be desired, and individual in crisis both need deserve more support than what is available to them.

You can read more perspectives on the suicide prevention lifeline below:

Getty image via AnnaNahabed

Originally published: July 17, 2020
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