HYATTSVILLE, Md. (AP) — When Jamison Brill answers a crisis call from a Spanish speaker on the newly launched 988 National Mental Health Helpline, he rarely mentions the word suicide or “suicide.”
Brill, whose family hails from Puerto Rico, knows that in some Spanish-speaking cultures just discussing the term is so frowned upon that many callers are afraid to even admit that they’re calling out to themselves.
“Although there is a strong stigma around mental health concerns in English-speaking cultures, in Spanish-speaking cultures it is three times as strong,” said Brill, who helps people cope with mental health crises from a small brick building tucked away in Hyattsville, Maryland. that”.
Brill works in one of more than 200 call centers spread across the country tasked with answering a surge of calls day and night from people who are suicidal or experiencing a mental health emergency.
With bipartisan congressional support and just under $1 billion in federal funds, the 988 mental health helpline has rapidly expanded its reach in the six months since it launched — receiving more than 2 million calls, texts, and chat messages.
The number of centers responding to calls in Spanish rose from three to seven last year. A pilot line dedicated to LGBTQ youth began taking calls in September. And plans are underway to keep the momentum going, with the federal government adding Spanish-language chat and text options later this year and aiming to expand those services to 24/7 operation for the LGBTQ line.
When the 24-hour phone launched last summer, it built on the existing network that used to operate at the old National Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255. The new 988 is designed to be as easy to remember as 911.
It couldn’t come at a time when it’s most needed: U.S. adult depression rates, overdose deaths and suicide rates are on the rise.
“The volume of the call, in some cases, is far beyond what we expected,” said Miriam Delphine Rytmon, assistant secretary for mental health and substance abuse at the Department of Health and Human Services. “It teaches us that people are suffering, and people are going through hard times. I’m glad people are reaching out for services and support, as opposed to struggling on their own.”
The 988 helpline recorded 154,585 more calls, texts, and chat messages during November 2022 compared to the old National Lifeline in November 2021, according to the most recent data available.
Texting was particularly popular, with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reporting a 1,227% increase in texts to the line over the same time.
The Veterans Crisis Line—callers can press “1” after sending a text message or dial 988 to reach it—has sent out 450,000 calls, texts, and chat messages, according to the VA. By the end of the year, the line handled an increase of nearly 10% compared to 2021.
Calls show no signs of slowing this year, with consultants answering 3,869 calls on New Year’s Eve and the first day of 2023 – an increase of 30 percent compared to the previous holiday. The Spanish Language Line saw an increase of 3,800 calls year-over-year from November 2021 to November 2022.
Meanwhile, some countries are considering revealing their own lines intended for specific communities.
In November, Washington became the first state to launch a mental health crisis line dedicated to American Indians and Alaska Natives. Washington callers can access the line by dialing 988 and then pressing “4” to be greeted by one of the thirteen counselors—all Native Americans—who work the phones.
Having fellow Indians answer those calls is crucial, said Rochelle Williams, director of tribal operations for the Volunteers of America in Western Washington, who oversees the call center, because those familiar with the culture can instantly decipher some jargon that others can’t. For example, she said, when a caller says a relative is “bothering me,” it sends an immediate red flag: The person is likely implying that they are a victim of sexual assault.
“Who has a better understanding of the indigenous people than the natives?” said Williams. “We don’t trust a lot of government programmes. Knowing that you’re talking to another Indigenous person is really important.”
Williams wants to add chat and text options next. She hopes Washington’s 988 Native American line will become a model for others. It has already given presentations in New Mexico, Oklahoma, Montana and Canada, which is set to launch its own 988 National this year.
States are expected to receive more money to fund the line from the $1.7 trillion year-end spending package, which has set aside another half billion dollars for the project.
However, long-term funding for the 988 helpline is at risk in some states, which have not yet determined a permanent funding plan for it. While the federal government has poured millions of dollars into the project, states are expected to take over the operation and financing of the 988 line — just as they do the 911 emergency call services.
To date, fewer than 20 states have passed legislation to permanently fund the 988 line, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health Illnesses.
In Ohio, for example, supporters are paying the state legislature to sign off on a 50-cent fee attached to cellphone bills, raising roughly $50 million to $55 million annually to operate the line, said Tony Cooder of Ohio. . Suicide Prevention Foundation.
“Honestly, life depends on it,” Cooder said. “The need for the 988 service is more important than ever, simply because of the consequences and mental health issues caused by COVID.”