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EDITORIAL | New national 988 number gives those in need of mental health help helpful access

New national Suicide and Crisis Lifeline addresses rise in need for mental health services

Note: The St. Louis Review offers occasional editorials and opinions from other Catholic publications. This editorial was originally published online July 27 by The Compass, newspaper of the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin, and updated with some local information.

Have you ever had a mental health crisis in your family? Has a friend ever acted strangely, and you feared they might hurt themselves?

We’ve all had times where we have wondered what to do and where to turn. We don’t want to overreact, but we feel helpless. Or we ourselves may feel helpless, or hopeless.

What do you do? Who do you call?

Since July 16, you can call someone at “988.” Three digits on your phone connect you with help.

The National Suicide Hotline Designation Act, signed in 2020, authorized 988 as a new three-digit number for suicide and mental health crises. It was a joint effort of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

All telephone service and text providers in the U.S. and the five major U.S. territories have activated the lifeline. The 988 number also links with the Veterans Crisis Line. The 10-digit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255) will continue to be operational.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), when someone calls 988, they reach trained crisis counselors who will “listen to the caller, understand how their problem is affecting them, provide support and share resources, as needed.” The agency said counselors will be able to help 80% of callers in the first call.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the lifeline is funded by a $105 million grant to states and territories, provided by the American Rescue Plan, “to improve response rates, increase capacity to meet future demand and ensure calls initiated in their states or territories are first routed to local, regional or state crisis call centers.”

Mental health is a crisis in our country. On Dec. 6, 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, issued an advisory, “Protecting Youth Mental Health.” In it, he wrote, “Recent national surveys of young people have shown alarming increases in the prevalence of certain mental health challenges — in 2019, one in three high school students and half of female students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, an overall increase of 40% from 2009.”

According to Mental Health America (mhanational.org), 19.86% of U.S. adults experienced a mental illness in 2019. And the National Academies of Sciences, in a Jan. 31, 2018, report, noted that, “Overall, 41% of veterans were found to have a potential need for mental health care.”

Locally, Saint Louis Counseling, an agency of Catholic Charities of St. Louis, has seen an increase in demand for services since the pandemic began, said executive director Tom Duff. While there hasn’t been much turnover of licensed therapists, Saint Louis Counseling is looking for more LCSWs to meet the need.

“We all experience the same stressor” of the pandemic, said Duff. “There’s a lot of anxiety and emotional health needs. A lot of times, people think, ‘I don’t have a mental health issue,’ but we all have emotional and mental health and (the pandemic) affected us on a lot of levels.”

Duff has seen an increase in anxiety issues in adolescents related to ongoing stress. “We have become an anxious world to begin with, and kids are feeling the pinch of grief and loss over last couple of years. If their parents or family dealing are with adult stressors, kids are feeling that, too.”

Another area of concern is adjustment disorders in adults. “A lot of times, that is a life change that is significant in their lives,” he said. “That could be someone losing their job, for example, and the ability to emotionally regulate is not there.”

It’s OK to ask for help, and 988 is one way to do that. “We think it’s a great resource, because sometimes when people are in the middle of a crisis, having an easy number to call can mean life or death,” Duff said.

Saint Louis Counseling provides individual, group and family counseling with seven office locations in the St. Louis and surrounding areas. The School Partnership Program serves more than 130 parochial, private and public schools with school-based counseling services. Additional resources, including a podcast with helpful mental health topics, is available at saintlouiscounseling.org. Or call (314) 544-3800.

Calling 988 for yourself, a loved one or friend can make all the difference. Calling 988 today might prevent a loved one from calling 911 tomorrow.

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