Emily Rice Published

Texts Increase In First Year Of 988

A person is holding a cell phone reading a text message.Pixabay.com

The goal of 988 is to connect people in crisis with someone in their community who can point them to local resources if needed.

The new three-digit national crisis line took five million calls in its first year of operation. Federal officials say that is up 35 percent compared to the old 10-digit line. 

One year ago, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline became 988, an easy-to-remember lifeline created to help people dealing with depression, substance use and suicidal ideation, and get more immediate help and be guided to additional resources.

Officials report, one year in, texts to the lifeline increased and average wait times fell to 41 seconds.

In 2022, West Virginia lawmakers passed Senate Bill 181 with a commitment from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) to fund the call center.

According to a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), a survey found that 38 percent of West Virginians reported symptoms of anxiety or a depressive disorder during the two-week surveyed time, compared to 32.2 percent of adults in the U.S.

According to KFF’s analysis of the CDC’s Multiple Cause of Death 2011 to 2021 report, suicide deaths have increased fastest among people of color, younger individuals and people who live in rural areas.

West Virginia’s age-adjusted suicide rate was higher than the national average in 2021 with 20.6 per 100,000 people.

Across the country, some states have struggled to staff their call centers. This is not the case in West Virginia, as First Choice Services, the nonprofit organization that operates 988 and other health helplines in West Virginia had only seven job openings at the time this story was published.

Jeremy Smith, director of outreach at First Choice Services, said his organization has seen an influx of people reaching out since the switch to 988, which he credits in part to the new tagline for the service.

“With the rollout of 988, I think people started understanding that maybe they don’t actually have to be suicidal at that point,” Smith said. “They might just be dealing with a crisis and severe emotional distress and need somebody to talk to. And by opening up, you know, and adding the word crisis, I think it made it more clear to everybody that this is also a resource for people that just need to talk to somebody.”

Smith said 988 is easier to remember for people and credits simplicity with increased calls and texts.

“Obviously, by switching to 988, it made the number easier to remember for folks, just like we have 911,” Smith said. “Everybody knows what 911 is. They know you can call it for an emergency. 988 just fits right in with that.”

According to Smith, they have seen an increase in the number of people under the age of 24 using the service, specifically the texting line.

“It definitely seems to trend that more and more younger people are using the service, especially if they’re under the age of 34,” Smith said. “So it definitely seems like younger people are more comfortable using the program.”

The lines give people the option to talk to someone who will not judge them about what is going on in their lives and receive guidance for healthy coping mechanisms.

“We really try to hit all the different angles in our training and our specialization so that when somebody calls, we do have some skills that we can use and talk to them about whatever they might be going through,” Smith said.

In the last year, 988 has answered more than 665,000 texts, a 1,135 percent increase from the 10-digit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline the year before 988 went live. The 10-digit line only added text in 2020.

“On average, one person died by suicide every 22 hours in this state, according to the last known facts that we had from 2020. It’s the second leading cause of death for kids age 10 to 34,” Smith said.

Only 18 percent of adults in the U.S. are aware of 988, according to a survey released in May by Pew Charitable Trusts.

“In addition to the phone calls, people can text, text and chat as well, and we want to make sure people know about that option. Especially with the younger generation, it seems like they’re a little bit more comfortable communicating in that method,” Smith said. “And so those come in right here to us, and we’re going to give those the same level of care that we do with phone calls.”

Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting with support from Charleston Area Medical Center and Marshall Health.