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Ti988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline Is Live


Article by Kelsey Huber

Photography by Provided by KSPHQ

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 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. 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. 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. 

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.

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. Sometimes licensed therapists and psychologists who want to give back become volunteers. 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.

Not everyone who volunteers passes the program to become a crisis counselor. Crisis counselors 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. 

“The training I received during volunteer training changed my life,” said Auw Sheen, LMSW, KSPHQ Training Coordinator. “Not only did it build the strongest foundation for counseling in my clinical education, it also vastly improved my personal relationships with the skills I learned. I am incredibly honored that I get to be a part of that training now as KSPHQ’s Training Coordinator.”  

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.

“Every employee at KSPHQ is required to go through the training, not just call center volunteers.” said Sarah Robertson, Communications & Development. “This requirement ensures all staff have the tools needed in the event we find ourselves engaging with a community member who is in crisis or has a lived experience. In my training, I’ve learned how critical the role of counselor is and how invaluable the skills taught to our call center volunteers are.” 

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 in-person crisis response. Anyone can call anytime for any reason. Even someone concerned about another person or a family member can call the lifeline for help.

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 counselors she speaks to at KSPHQ are compassionate and don’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 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 easily remembered 988 dialing code, KSPHQ is already experiencing an increase in calls. “Our organization saw about a 50% increase in the first month of 988,” said Jared Auten, Crisis Line Coordinator. Nationally, the lifeline is reporting a 45% increase in calls. 

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.