When there is an emergency, everyone knows to call 911. But until now, when there was a mental health emergency, there was no such code available. That’s all changing with the introduction of 988 - a new nationwide three-digit dialing code connecting to 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline - formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. (The former number, 800 273-8255, will also remain active.)
While a three-digit dialing code may seem like a new idea, it was over two decades in the making. Back in 2001, Congress appropriated funding for a suicide prevention hotline. In 2005, The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline launched with the 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) and received 46K calls in the first year. Over the years, a Spanish language subnetwork and The Veterans Crisis Line were added. In 2018 The National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act became law, which required a feasibility study into designating a three-digit dialing code for a national suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline system. The National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020 required the FCC to designate 988 as the universal number. In July of 2020, the FCC issued the final order designating 988 as the new Lifeline and Veterans Crisis Line number, requiring all U.S. telecommunication providers to activate 988 for all subscribers by July 16, 2022.
This new code offers those in crisis 24/7/365 call, text, and chat access to speak to trained crisis counselors. Whether someone is experiencing suicidal thoughts, substance use, a mental health crisis, or any other kind of emotional distress, there is now someone to turn to for help. There are about 200 local, independently owned and operated crisis centers that operate in the network. Kansas Suicide Prevention HQ (KSPHQ) in Lawrence is one of those crisis centers.
Roxie Lytle, Development Officer at KSPHQ, says this new lifeline is going to be a game changer. Kansas Suicide Prevention HQ (KSPHQ) began providing over-the-phone support in 1969 in response to community issues related to substance use. A group of KU students noticed a drug problem within the community and started the hotline. “It was very forward thinking at the time,” Lytle said. KSPHQ expanded to a complete crisis center serving those with drug addiction, mental illness, victims of sexual assault, domestic abuse, the city’s homeless, and more. In 2005, it became part of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Network.
In 2020, Governor Kelly signed and the legislature passed a bill approving a one-time grant for KSPHQ that allowed them to triple the size of their call room and staff. That was huge,” Lytle said. “We can do so much with those resources. We have an excellent volunteer retention rate which really says something about the program and how it’s run.”
There are three Lifeline Contact Centers serving Kansans through 988: KSPHQ, Johnson County Mental Health Center, and Comcare of Sedgwick County. Calls originating from Johnson and Sedgwick County area codes and prefixes ring to their respective contact centers before rolling over to KSPHQ. All of the other 103 counties ring first to KSPHQ. If KSPHQ can't answer a call, it goes to the National Backup Network to be answered by a Lifeline Contact Center in another state. This system is intended to ensure all calls are answered by a highly trained crisis counselor and increase the likelihood that a Kansan reaching out is served by a Kansas contact center.
“People wonder how it can help to talk to a stranger, but feeling connected to another human being can be just enough light to bring someone out of the darkness,” Lytle shared. Current National Suicide Prevention Lifeline call data shows that the majority of callers (over 80%) are able to receive the help they need over the phone; thereby reducing the need for an in-person crisis response.
“We want people to know that they can call for any reason,” Lytle added. “Maybe you need someone to listen to you. Maybe you're in recovery, and you don't want to drink, but you can’t see your sponsor or therapist until next week. Maybe a loved one died or you’re facing eviction…whatever has you feeling down, there’s someone to listen.” Even someone concerned about another person or a family member can call the lifeline for help.
You may be wondering just who answers these 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline calls. Many recruits for crisis counselors come from nearby KU. “KU students majoring in social work or psychology have the perfect background to become volunteers,” Lytle said. “We also see licensed therapists and psychologists who want to give back, but it’s also important to note that one needs no prior experience and that volunteers come from all types of backgrounds and experiences. You don't have to be a mental health professional or prospective mental health professional to become a volunteer.” Volunteers have the support and supervision of paid professional staff.
“It’s a difficult program and not for the faint of heart,” said Lytle, who told us she herself finished and passed all the tests to become a counselor, but wasn't cut out to be a crisis counselor. "I'll prevent suicide in other ways," she said.
The crisis counselors on the other end of the phone must first pass the interview process. Then they complete a rigorous eight-week counselor training program that consists of over 100 hours of comprehensive in-house training, lectures, readings, role playing, and observation. “I was amazed when I observed these trained counselors in action,” Lytle continued. “It’s like watching Michael Phelps swim. It doesn’t look that hard, but it takes tremendous energy and a lot of mental training and emotional strength.”
These counselors listen to the caller’s story. They use the counseling tools they’ve acquired through training, including reflective listening, de-escalation, and suicide intervention skills to assess the situation and determine if the caller is at risk. They initiate collaborative safety planning, offer information on other resources like local mental health centers, and offer follow-up contact. These compassionate, accessible, and highly-trained counselors truly are the lifelines for people in crisis.
“In my training, one of the helpful tips I learned was don’t be a ‘fixer,’” Lytle said. Trying to fix the problem when someone comes to you for help is one of the worst approaches you can take. “The last thing you should do when someone is in crisis is offer advice,” Lytle continued. “They are at the bottom of a pit of despair feeling helpless, hopeless and isolated. They need to be heard, validated, understood, and to feel connected,” she explained. “When you tell a person in crisis what they should do, all they hear is that they should have already done it, and they feel ashamed and think they are a burden.”
KSPHQ believes that mental health care is healthcare. “We should be able to talk about mental health symptoms like any medical illness,” Lytle said. “We have to look at suicide prevention holistically. One of the things people don’t understand is that you can have psychological (mental health) symptoms and not have chronic mental health issues.” Think of it like gestational diabetes,” Lytle continued. “Many women have it when they are pregnant. Most times it goes away, but for some, it stays. Grief, for instance, can be very traumatic. It may be temporary, or it may stay for an extended period. Chronic pain can cause psychological symptoms. There are many causes for mental distress, but no matter the cause, people should be able to find the help they need."
Whit D. is one Topeka citizen who has called the lifeline multiple times during moments of crisis. Whit, who is 26, was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and autism. She struggles with suicidal thoughts, but the lifeline has helped her realize she doesn’t have to struggle alone. “I was afraid to call the first time,” she said, “But I’m so glad I did. I want people to know that it’s okay to be afraid, but call anyway. Call scared.”
She said the counselor she spoke to at KSPHQ was compassionate and didn’t judge her. “I’ll never forget the first time I called. The counselor said, ‘I know suicide is a real option, but you called, so there’s a part of you that wants to live. I want to talk to both sides.’ That made me feel like my feelings were validated.”
Whit also wants people to know that they don’t have to be suicidal to call the lifeline. “Sometimes, you just need someone to talk to and you don’t want to talk to your family.”
She praised the counselors at KSPHQ. ‘The counselors are amazing,” she shared. “Words don’t always come easily for me, and the counselor asked if I had autism. She recognized that over the phone.” While Whit said all of the locations are good, she can tell when it’s not “HQ”. That speaks to the rigorous training program at KSPHQ.
Whit also shared that she would like to see more of a focus on the successes people have. “We hear about the deaths from suicide, but we don’t hear about the people who made it through,” she stressed. “This lifeline is keeping people alive and helping them rebuild their mental health and heal. It’s comforting to know someone is there when you need them the most.”
With the launching of the 988 dialing code, KSPHQ is gearing up for an increase in calls. “We’re expecting quadruple the calls because of the easily remembered new number,” Lytle said. “I’m very proud of our state. Kansas is leading the nation in our response to this federal initiative.” Governor Kelly just signed budget allocations in July, so indeed, it looks like Kansas is ahead of the game.
So what can you do to make a difference in your community? Educate others about this new 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Encourage others to call when they need help. Become a counselor. Advocate for funding for the 988 program at a state or local level. For more information about the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline visit Kansas Suicide Prevention HQ or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. And remember - mental health care is healthcare.
If you or someone you love is struggling with suicidal thoughts or distress of any kind, call or text 988.