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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Reynolds

As 988 Launches, Strapped Agencies Answer Critical Call

Calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline will get easier today, when its current 10-digit number (1-800-273-TALK/8255) becomes a three-digit emergency call (9-8-8).

The easier-to-remember, easy-to-dial number is expected to divert mental-health calls from the 9-1-1 emergency system, limit unnecessary emergency room visits and save lives. Organizers project that suicide-related calls, texts and online chats will more than double – to 9 million contacts – by this time next year, and potentially reach 24 million contacts by 2026.

That’s good, because anxiety and depression among Americans skyrocketed during COVID-19, while lockdowns, staff shortages and clinic closures made mental healthcare even harder to get. By some measures, young people were challenged the most, with 44 percent of teens reporting persistent sadness or hopelessness, nearly 20 percent seriously considering suicide and 9 percent making at least one suicide attempt during the pandemic.

America’s mental health crisis predates COVID. But the numbers spiked in 2020, the last year for which published data is available: An estimated 12.2 million American adults thought seriously about suicide that year, while 3.2 million planned a suicide attempt and 1.2 million made an attempt. Nearly 46,000 died – for the year, about one person every 11 minutes.

Suicide is preventable and there’s ample evidence that crisis hotlines save lives.

The Federal Communications Commission first pitched a 9-8-8 plan in 2019, and a year later, the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020 made it official, encouraging stronger links to mental-health and substance-abuse services and strengthening the national network of 200 independently operated and funded organizations – including two on Long Island – that field forwarded suicide-related calls.

Officials at the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration call 9-8-8 “the linchpin and catalyst for a transformed behavioral-health crisis-care system in the same way that 9-1-1 spurred the growth of emergency medical services in the United States.”

Response Crisis Center of Suffolk County Executive Director Meryl Cassidy, whose Stony Brook-based nonprofit handles Suffolk’s national-hotline calls, doesn’t love the comparison.

“We don’t have the same tools at our disposal that 9-1-1 has,” Cassidy notes, referring to geolocation technology for callbacks, staffing infrastructure and other external resources available to the traditional emergency system.

But Response has spent the last two years gearing up for 9-8-8, according to its executive director. Meanwhile, other small nonprofits across the nation have had trouble finding crisis counselors willing to work for modest wages, while chronic underfunding is also hampering technology upgrades – making it more challenging to connect those in need to overstrained local resources.

“We already connect callers to existing resources that best serve their needs,” says Theresa Buhse, who runs the Bellmore-based Long Island Crisis Center, which has handled national hotline calls from Nassau County residents since 2005.

“What’s needed is more services to connect callers to,” according to Buhse, who notes long waiting lists at local counseling centers and a persistent need for walk-in mental-health services for distressed teens.

Her organization has gotten just enough state and federal funding to pay for the additional staff that must be in place for 9-8-8’s scheduled July 16 launch, though both Response and LICC are still looking for additional qualified crisis counselors to answer calls, texts and chats remotely.

“We know how to answer 9-8-8 and have been providing NSPL services for years,” Buhse says. “We just need to know what exactly the expectations are and how we are going to receive the funding to meet these expectations.”

Buhse is not the only one asking those questions. A RAND Corp. survey released this month queried 180 local officials across 23 states and found that more than half weren’t involved in creating a strategic plan for implementing 9-8-8. Only 16 percent of respondents indicated they had a budget for doing so, and most felt unprepared for today's launch.

The outlook may improve, with the Biden Administration investing $400 million in the 9-8-8 transition and promising more. New York State is also offering federally funded grants to crisis-call agencies – especially those with shoestring budgets and a heavy dependence on volunteers.

Lawmakers in some states are considering raising money for 9-8-8 the same way they do for 9-1-1, with a monthly fee on phone bills – but telecommunications companies are pushing back.

Those 9-1-1 surcharges net an estimated $3.1 billion annually. Money like that would ensure that nonprofits can continue to answer calls from people in crisis – and would help modernize an entire mental-health system that’s in crisis as well.

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