New '988' number connects callers to suicide/crisis lifeline

A new national Suicide & Crisis Lifeline — 988 — will offer another option for individuals experiencing a crisis or any other kind of emotional distress.

The Illinois Department of Human Services Division of Mental Health launched the free, confidential lifeline July 16. Trained professionals will offer compassionate care related to suicide, mental health and/or substance abuse to individuals and concerned family members, friends and caregivers.

“This resource resonates with us at the foundation because it really does advance our shared vision to promote good mental health and wellness,” said Greg DiDomenico, president and CEO of Hinsdale-based Community Memorial Foundation. “It’s an easy-to-remember number that you can call if you need help or someone to talk to.

“It’s accessible to all folks in our region and across the state 24/7 and 365,” he continued. “It’s something that we’re going to continue to promote. We want to encourage people to use it and make 988 just as common as 411 or 911.”

Previously callers could reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline network by dialing (800) 273-TALK. The new three-digit number will make services more accessible, said Beth Murin, the foundation’s program and communications officer.

“That clunkiness is a barrier to access,” Murin said, referring to the old hotline number. “We want everyone to say ‘988’ — to know it like they know 911.”

The new number also is open to more callers, Murin noted.

“They’re sort of rebranding, so it’s not just the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, it’s the Suicide Prevention and Crisis Lifeline,” she said.

Callers will have the option to select the Veterans Crisis Line or to speak to someone in Spanish. If a caller with an Illinois area code does not select either option, he or she will be routed to an Illinois Lifeline Call Center. If after three minutes the call is not answered by a live person, the caller is routed to a national backup affiliate network, which includes call centers that operate in other states.

The foundation will continue to promote the Crisis Text Line, available by texting the word “NOW” to 741741. Texting and chatting options are not yet available through 988.

“We know Crisis Text Line users tend to skew younger and they prefer the text and online chat model,” Murin said. “I think it’s important for us to continue to use Crisis Text Line as that avenue for texting and chatting. It’s two doors to the same house.”

The text line also offers opportunities for people to reach out for help when making a call is not possible.

“If they are in school and they are at their desk, they can’t call,” Murin said. “They can text if they are in a crisis situation in a classroom.”

The national lifeline and the crisis textline both offer an alternative to calling the police in the event of a mental health emergency.

“They estimate 90 percent of calls can be deescalated via talk, text or chat,” Murin said. “That’s remarkable. That removes a significant burden on local law enforcement.”

DiDomenico said 988 and the textline will complement each other.

“We’re really grateful to our colleagues at the Illinois Department of Human Services to promote this,” he said. “Right now, we’re going to keep both, again based on the more resources, the more we know there is help, the better.”

The crisis text line also provides general data about the type of person accessing it so the foundation can partner with other area agencies to provide needed resources.

“We want people to have access to the services, not waiting lists,” DiDomenico said. “Funding programs, funding counseling, funding services like the Living Room are really important as part of the overall vision.”

A statement from the National Alliance on Mental Illness/Illinois concurred, praising the state’s investment in call centers and work to establish and coordinate mobile crisis response teams of mental health professionals.

“Similarly, providing access to crisis stabilization centers means tackling major gaps in all treatment options, from a shortage of in-patient beds to demand for ‘Living Room’ drop-in centers in every community,” the statement reads. “Staffing these systems also demands an acceleration of efforts to build a larger and more diverse behavioral health workforce.

“While 988 adds much-needed capacity and momentum, the journey is just beginning,” it concluded.

DiDomenico encouraged people to continue to discuss mental health, starting at the kitchen table.

“Talk about it within your families, within the workplace,” he said.

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Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean