988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: Employers needed to raise awareness 

June 30, 2022

As the prevalence of mental health conditions and the suicide rate continues to climb, an important effort to address this growing national public health emergency is going live on July 16, 2022. A federally mandated, universal crisis number, 988, will replace the current National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800 number and be available for landline and cell phone users who are suicidal or experiencing a mental health crisis. This is transformational for the United States; we should expect to see a national effort to further develop and expand the necessary infrastructure to support the 988 system continue for the foreseeable future.

Most people are familiar with 911 as being the universal number you call in a medical emergency and, today, many people call 911 when they're experiencing a mental health crisis. That typically leads to an ambulance and EMTs showing up at your house or maybe even the police. Oftentimes, that leads to a transport to an emergency department and possibly an inpatient admission. In addition to this being a costly intervention, it is often not the most appropriate or effective in responding to the underlying issue.

Starting July 16, individuals experiencing a mental health crisis can call 988 (or chat/text) and be immediately connected to a local suicide prevention and crisis call center that can address a person's needs and coordinate care in real time. By dialing 988 individuals will be connected to a behavioral health crisis worker completely separate from law enforcement and public safety. The trained crisis professional who answers the phone will most likely live in your local community and know about the community resources and supports that are available. They will help you or a loved one identify strategies and immediate solutions to address the precipitating crisis and get you connected to care to support your ongoing needs.

Research has demonstrated that crisis counselors are able to address the needs of callers around 80% of the time over the phone. For issues that can’t be resolved over the phone, in many locations, the crisis counselor has the capability to dispatch a mobile team to where the individual is located to try to resolve the crisis in the field. And about 70% of the time when these teams are dispatched, they are able to do just that. When they're not able to resolve the situation in the field, they may arrange transport to an emergency department if that's the only other level of care that's available in the community. But, we’re starting to see many states develop free-standing crisis stabilization centers – alternatives to emergency departments, where someone could be transported and they could stay for up to 24 hours or potentially even up to a few days. Crisis stabilization centers are specifically focused on trying to stabilize mental health needs and support transition to appropriate outpatient mental health and/or substance use treatment services.

The success of 988 starts with raising awareness. You should expect to see and hear many public service announcements in the coming months. Employers can play a big role in educating their employees and family members – and answering questions – about this new suicide and crisis line. To make it easier, The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has made a variety of materials available and will be releasing additional materials in July. We encourage employers to leverage these materials in custom communications that will proactively address employee questions about when to call 988 or other employer resources such as the employee assistance program or point solution.

We believe that when it comes to mental health and access to services in the US, 988 will be transformational. Getting more people connected to the 988 crisis line means they will receive crisis assistance in the least restrictive way possible and avoid unnecessary emergency room visits and potentially an inpatient admission. For more information on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, visit https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/.

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