Eric Zuniga, Campus Carrier staff writer
Elizabeth Montiel, Campus Carrier staff writer
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has been faced with a massive increase in call volume following the introduction of 988, a new three-digit number that connects callers across the United States to the lifeline, in July.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the total amount of calls, texts and chats increased by 45% from August 2021 to August of this year. While the number of calls to the line went up by 50%, the number of web chats answered increased by 195% and the number of texts answered surged by almost 1,000%. In total, there were 216,000 calls and 39,900 handled by the hotline this August compared to only 141,000 calls and 3,400 texts received in August 2021.
Miguel Ampuero, assistant professor of psychology, said that this increase in usage caused by the new number’s ease of access represents a positive development in suicide prevention efforts.
“I think it’s a great development,” Ampuero said. “The more resources students and members of the community have with respect to getting support for these kinds of situations, the better. The important thing about this service is that it needs to be available when it’s actually needed.”
The Federal Communications Commission voted to establish the 988 number in December 2019. Majonica Askew, Berry’s Suicide Prevention Project Director and Counselor, said that the new number was intended to be more memorable than the lifeline’s previous ten-digit 800 number.
“If a person is in a crisis, it will be very hard to remember seven or ten digits,” Askew said. “The three-digit 988 is supposed to stick in people’s minds because it reminds them of 911. The increase in utilization makes sense, because you can remember three digits more than ten, especially when you’re in a crisis.”
Askew, who has previously worked with the suicide prevention line as a mobile crisis team worker, said that when a person called the line, they would be connected with a licensed counselor who would evaluate their emotional state during their conversation. These counselors would then serve as a kind of gateway to additional resources depending on the severity of the person’s situation.
“When they are calling the number, they’re going to be speaking with a licensed counselor,” Askew said. “This person is going to be a master’s level professional who will be able to talk to them about what they’re going through. As the person is talking to this counselor, the counselor’s going to be scoring or checking a checklist. At the end of the checklist, they’re going to be scored on levels one through five. If they’re a level five, they’re just a low-level person who needed someone to talk to. We gave them resources from their local community service board to start meeting with a counselor, things like that.”
Askew said that if the caller is a lower number, more extreme measures would be taken.
“If they’re a level three, two or one, they would send a mobile crisis team to that person’s location,” Askew said. I was a part of the mobile crisis team. I would receive calls from dispatch, and they would give me the report, so I’m knowing what I’m going into as I’m going into these people’s homes. When we get there, we’re talking to them, we support them and we would even be on the phone calling places to see if we could connect them to further resources.”
The recent surge in calls has highlighted some concerns about the lifeline, however. Understaffing has been persistent issue for the program even before the new number was introduced, as Askew explained.
“Even before the number rolled out in July of this summer, there was always a recruitment going on for new staff and for new first responders and new second responders,” Askew said.
Additionally, some on social media have raised the issue of the lifeline dispatching police, who often are not trained in crisis de-escalation, to mental health emergencies. In 2019, one in five police shootings involved mentally ill people. Askew said that communities are making efforts to alleviate understaffing issues and improve police response to crisis situations.
“I do believe that it could put a strain on the system, but I also believe that they have thought of ways to try to mitigate that strain,” Askew said. “Some of those ways are going to be to have actual, factual counselors sitting in police stations and in places in the community. The crisis response team before was just a counselor and a second responder, and you’d call the police if you needed. But now they’re having police officers trained as crisis intervention team members, and then they’re also having counselors go on ride-alongs with the police officers. Instead of the people responding being in a call center, they’re already in the community.”
While the suicide lifeline is intended for those in crisis situations, suicide prevention efforts can begin long before a person starts to consider taking their own life. According to Ampuero, establishing healthy habits and a healthy self-image can make a big difference on whether a person will start to contemplate self-harm.
“Some of the ways that this could be prevented or reduced is, first of all, learning to adopt habits that are healthy for you, for example exercising or taking time for yourself to rest and developing a healthy social network,” Ampuero said. “All of these factors may seem minor, but they could always diminish your sense of image, efficacy and productivity that may actually lead to developing these thoughts of inadequacy and self-harm.”
Ampuero said that self-care was of the utmost importance.
“It is extremely important that people first learn how to take care of themselves, and also be aware of the number of resources that can actually support in these kinds of situations,” Ampuero said.
Berry offers numerous resources for those struggling with mental health issues, including the Counseling Center in the Ladd Center, which is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays. In her role as suicide prevention project director, Askew has led an expansion of mental wellness programs across campus, such as suicide prevention certification efforts and the Berry Care Team.
“The general student population is not required to be a part of suicide prevention certification, but the student leaders are. Most of them were already certified by the second week of August,” Askew said. “We have the Berry Care Team, which is going to receive reports from anyone on campus through Berry Alert and they will be able to provide some support and services for whoever needs assistance. We also have the Berry police, which is also a part of the suicide prevention project as well, and they’re getting trained on crisis response and suicide prevention.”
Askew also said that Berry students will have an opportunity to improve Berry’s mental health resources by participating in a survey that will be released later this fall. The results of the study will be used to improve access to mental health services on Berry’s campus.
“This study is going out to all Berry students that are 18 years or older. It starts October 24 and it goes for four weeks,” Askew said. “We’re going to know which people are coming to counseling, who’s using peer wellness coaches, which is a new service we have, and also we’re going to know who’s struggling or suffering in silence.”
Askew said that in order to help, the counseling center needed to hear from students.
“We just really need people to open that email and take 15 minutes to take that survey. It will make a really, really big impact on campus,” Askew added.
Students can also find information on mental health awareness and how to help yourself or a friend on the Counseling Center’s website, located at berry.edu. Becca Smith, Director of Counseling, makes sure the website contains reliable, up-to-date information someone may need.
“We’re working on spreading awareness and making sure everyone is aware of their resources. This could be lifesaving,” Smith said.