When Jamieson Brill answers a crisis call from a Spanish-speaking 988 mental health helpline — a service launched in the United States six months ago — he rarely mentions the word “suicide.”
Brill, whose family is from Puerto Rico, knows that even mentioning the term in some Spanish-speaking cultures is so frowned upon that many callers are too scared to admit that they are seeking help for themselves.
“As strong as the stigma around mental health issues is in English-speaking cultures, in Spanish-speaking cultures it is triple that,” says Brill, who helps people through health crises. from a small hidden brick building in Hyattsville, Maryland.
Brill works at one of more than 200 call centers across the United States responding to an increase in calls — day and night — from people considering suicide or experiencing some other mental health emergency.
With bipartisan support from Congress and just under $1 billion in federal funding, the 988 mental health helpline has rapidly expanded its reach in the six months since it was launched: with more than 2 million calls, messages text and chat conversations pouring in.
The number of centers that answer calls in Spanish grew from three to seven last year. A pilot line dedicated to youth in the LGBTQ community began receiving calls in September. Plans are underway to keep that momentum going, and the federal government will add options for chat and text messages in Spanish later this year. It also has the goal of expanding those services to a 24/7 operation for the LGBTQ line.
When the 24-hour service launched last summer, it built on the existing network with staff who answered the old national helpline: 1-800-273-8255. The new number 988 is designed to be as easy to remember as 911 already is.
It couldn’t have come at a more urgent time: Rates of depression among adults, drug overdose deaths, and suicide rates in the United States have been on the rise.
“The volume of calls is, in some cases, much higher than we anticipated,” says Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Abuse at the Department of Health (HHS). “It lets us know that people are in trouble, that people are going through a difficult time. What encourages me is that people are connected to services and supports, rather than fighting on their own,” she adds.
The 988 national helpline recorded 154,585 more calls, texts and chat conversations during November 2022 compared to the old national helpline in November 2021, according to the latest available data.
Texting has been particularly popular, with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration noting a 1,227% increase in text messages to the line during that same time.
The Veterans Crisis Line—accessed by pressing number 1 after sending a text or calling 988—has received 450,000 calls, text messages and chat conversations, according to the Department of Public Affairs. Veterans. By the end of the year, the line had managed an increase of almost 10% compared to 2021.
Calls show no sign of abating this year, with advisers answering 3,869 calls on New Year’s Eve and the first day of 2023 – an increase of 30% compared to the previous year’s holiday. The Spanish line experienced an increase of 3,800 calls from November 2021 to November 2022.
Meanwhile, some states are considering creating their own phones focused on certain communities.
In November, Washington became the first US state to launch a mental health hotline focused on Alaska Natives and other Native Americans. Callers in Washington can reach the hotline by dialing 988 and then pressing the 4 key to be answered by one of the 13 counselors—all of them indigenous—who answer the phones.
The fact that the descendants of the original tribes are answering those calls is crucial, because those familiar with their culture can immediately decipher some terms that others can’t, explains Rochelle Williams, tribal operations manager for Volunteers of America Western Washington. (United States Volunteers for Western Washington), who oversees the call center. For example, she adds, when a caller says a family member “is bugging me,” that sends an immediate red flag: The caller is likely to indicate that she is the victim of sexual assault.
“Who has a better understanding of Native Americans than Native Americans themselves?” adds Williams. “We don’t trust many government programs. Knowing that you are talking to another indigenous person is really very important.”
Williams now wants to add chat and text options. He hopes Washington’s 988 line for American Indians will become a model for others. He has already made appearances in New Mexico, Oklahoma, Montana and in Canada, which will launch its own national 988 service this year.
States are expected to receive more money to fund the phone from the $1.7 trillion year-end budget, which set aside another $500 million for the project.
Still, long-term funding for the 988 helpline is in jeopardy in some states, which have yet to come up with a permanent funding plan for it. While the federal government invested millions of dollars in the project, the states are expected to take over the operation and financing of the 988 line, just as they do with the services of calls to the 911 emergency number.
So far, fewer than 20 states have passed laws to permanently fund their 988 line, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health Illness.
In Ohio, for example, proponents of these initiatives are pushing for the state legislature to pass a 50-cent fee on cell phone bills in order to raise $50 million to $55 million each year to fund service, said Tony Coder of the Ohio Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
“Frankly, lives depend on it,” Coder warned. “The need for 988 services is more critical than ever, simply because of the aftermath and mental health issues of COVID.”