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Our View: Suicide hotline too valuable not to fix

From the editorial: "The lifeline’s administrators can look at this moment and all the surprising sudden feedback not as a rejection or cancellation but ... as a chance for improvements so it can even more effectively deliver crisis services while reducing the stigma surrounding suicide and mental health conditions."

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Angel Boligan / Cagle Cartoons
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The national Suicide and Crisis Lifeline has been around for 17 years, since 2005, called upon millions of times every year during mental health emergencies. It’s responsible for saving countless lives.

So, when an easier way to reach the lifeline was proposed — by dialing easy-to-memorize 988 rather than struggling to recall a traditional, 10-digit phone number — the News Tribune was among those who cheered, urging in an editorial for “its prompt approval and its place alongside 911 as an easily remembered and effective way to summon help and save lives.”

Being able to dial 988 went into effect this summer, on July 16. And perhaps it was because of the sudden attention to it or perhaps because all of us now are being required to dial area codes, too, even for local calls, as a tradeoff for making 988 a reality — whatever the reason — rather than being embraced, the lifeline and the work of the national network of 163 crisis centers behind it are suddenly, and quite disappointingly, under fire.

A St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial last week said 988 “has hit a pretty major acceptance snag.” There’s even apparently a movement afoot to boycott it, despite all its life-saving good.

“Users warn that 988 counselors could wind up alerting police, who have the power to track down callers and take them to mental health facilities,” the St. Louis editorial pointed out. “People are taking to the internet to voice their complaints and warn others away from using the system.

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“On Instagram, Kaiser Health News reported, one user posted: ‘988 is not friendly. Don’t call it, don’t post it, don’t share it, without knowing the risks.’ Another post stated: ‘Hotline staffers use a set of suicide screening questions to decide whether to initiate an ‘active rescue.’ The (system) calls the police on approximately 20% of callers,’ with geo-tracking technology revealing where the caller is located. Police are not necessarily equipped to de-escalate such crisis situations.’”

The lifeline hasn’t apparently altered its approach to emergencies. It’s just easier to reach now. In response to all the negative blowback, however, administrators said they’d begin requiring a supervisor to sign off before a crisis counselor notifies police, as the Post-Dispatch reported.

Improvements can always be pursued and encouraged, as necessary, whether anyone is complaining online or not. The lifeline’s administrators can look at this moment and all the surprising sudden feedback not as a rejection or cancellation but as an opportunity to reconsider its practices and how it operates. It can be seen as a chance for improvements so it can even more effectively deliver crisis services while reducing the stigma surrounding suicide and mental health conditions.

According to the American Association of Suicidology, mental health has reached "crisis" status. Suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death and second-leading cause of death for those under 25, as a News Tribune editorial reported in 2019. That was before the pandemic. COVID-19 has only pushed those numbers higher.

Additionally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2016, there were almost 45,000 suicides in the U.S., up from about 30,000 in 1999. From 1999 to 2016, suicide increased in 49 states, and the increase was greater than 20% in more than half of them, according to an FCC report to Congress. The same report further noted that suicide rates are even higher for veterans, those who are LGBTQ, and among other at-risk populations.

The national Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is needed as critically now as ever. In 2018 alone, its counselors answered more than 2.2 million calls and more than 100,000 online chats, each contact potentially easing overcrowding in a hospital emergency room or freeing up a 911 operator to deal with other emergencies.

The lifeline’s leaders need to continue to respond, and promptly, to complaints and calls for improvements. Their lines must remain open.

This hotline, established to save lives and with the best of intentions — and now easier to reach, thanks to the ease of dialing 988 — is simply too critical to be allowed to just go away.

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