Iowans experiencing a mental health crisis will soon have a faster way to contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
On July 16, Iowa will join states across the country implementing a three-digit number — 988 — that people can call or text to connect with a trained counselor who can help them deal with suicidal thoughts and mental health crises.
The National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020 won approval from Congress after advocates pushed to shorten the 10-digit number for the suicide prevention line.
One advocacy organization that pushed for the three-digit crisis number is NAMI Iowa, the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“Our national CEO, Dan Gillison, describes this as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve crisis response, and I truly believe that’s true,” said Peggy Hooper, executive director of NAMI Iowa. “And the main reason for that is being able to call a three-digit number where you’re going to get someone who’s trained to respond to a behavioral health crisis is really a game changer.”
When a person calls 911 during a mental health emergency, dispatchers send police, firefighters or emergency medical technicians — none of whom are counselors trained in mental health crises, Hooper said.
She said establishing 988 as a number to call would benefit both those in crisis who would have access to trained counselors and emergency responders who would have more time and resources for other needs.
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“What we know is that by doing that, the people who answer those phone calls and texts are able to resolve 90 percent of the calls or texts virtually, and that’s huge,” Hooper said. “So you avoid having to send law enforcement or the fire department or EMS and then you’re able to handle it. … And if we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity, then we should make the most of it.”
Growing mental health needs during the COVID pandemic helped accelerate change
While the discussion of a triple-digit crisis number has been around for years, Huppert said, the COVID-19 pandemic provided the impetus to make the change.
“So many people were struggling with mental health issues that they never had before, and it made it more acceptable for people to disclose that they were struggling and to seek help,” Huppert said. “And it was harder to get help because the health care system itself was struggling just to be able to meet the needs and the physical demands, which were obviously quite overwhelming, related to the pandemic.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau and the Kaiser Family Foundation, about 4 in 10 U.S. adults have reported symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder since the March 2020 shutdown of the COVID-19 pandemic, compared to 1 in 10 adults who reported such symptoms from January to June 2019.
Calls to the Iowa 988 hotline will be answered by two current Iowa National Suicide Prevention Lifelines: Foundation 2 Crisis Services of Cedar Rapids and Community Crisis Services of Iowa City.
Iowa has its own state mental health crisis number, leaving the state better prepared to handle the transition to 988 than many other states, Hooper said.
“I think unfortunately in some parts of the country you’re going to see states have problems,” she said. “Now, like the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 988 calls will be answered. It might not be from someone in your state if that state hasn’t prepared enough. capacity seats so your call will be answered.”
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Because about 98 percent of crises are resolved either over the phone or by sending a trained professional to the caller’s location, only 2 percent of callers need to be transported to another location to get help, she said.
“Just getting to that number of people who aren’t automatically sent to jail or the emergency room as a matter of course is big,” she said. “So the 2% that has to go somewhere, that’s another really important part of it … do we have enough places in our state where someone who needs crisis care can be taken? And I think the answer is pretty clear right now is that we don’t.”
The ability to send SMS 988 is expected to help reach younger people
The ability to text 988 is another advantage that makes it more accessible to younger people who feel less comfortable making private calls, Hooper said.
According to a CDC survey conducted in 2021, 37% of high school students reported experiencing poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 44% reported feeling consistently sad or hopeless in the past year.
Hooper said Polk County saw a spike in child suicides in January, with victims as young as 10 years old.
“Seeing younger and younger children, especially women, taking their own lives is obviously a very disturbing trend,” she said.
Iowa made way for the 988 number by switching to 10-digit dialing in the 515 and 319 area codes last fall. Dialing the area code and number avoids misdirected calls for customers whose local phone numbers start with 988.
The 988 helpline will provide readily available crisis support, but there are ways to be proactive about mental health before a crisis happens. Yupper encourages everyone to keep an eye on their friends and family, especially children, and reach out to them if their behavior or mood seems off.
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“It’s incumbent upon us to ask, ‘Are you okay?’ Because I’m concerned,’ let’s take care of each other,” Huppert said. “Because sometimes that can be the difference between someone asking for help and getting it or not. I tell people if you act out of care and concern, you can never go wrong.”
The 988 helpline will come into effect across the country on July 16. If you or someone you know needs support in a mental health crisis now, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or the Iowa State Your Life Crisis Line at 855- 581 -8111.
Grace Altenhofen is a staff writer for the Des Moines Register. You can reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter @gracealtenhofen.