Finally we can call 988 suicide hotline when we fear that we or a loved one is at risk

The number to dial is now just three digits, 988, instead of the clunky and impossible-to-remember hotline, 1-800-273-8255, which will remain operational. This is a huge step forward.

Steven Petrow
Opinion columnist

This column contains discussion of suicide. If you or someone you know might be struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-8255.

I read a shocking news story  this year. The headline from Insider summed up the gravity of the problem: "5 moms whose sons were killed after they called 911 for help now live with the consequences of a failed mental health system that uses cops as a crutch."

The story highlighted how poorly police officers are equipped to deal with those in the midst of a mental health crisis and the harm and guilt loved ones feel after calling 911.

Of course, that’s what we’re supposed to do in an emergency: Dial 911, which typically leads to an interaction with our police. That has been the case in my own family, when a relative in crisis repeatedly dialed 911 – and let me just say, those calls for help would have been much better handled by a mental health professional. 

Call 988:New suicide hotline can be our fresh start on mental health

Finally, a big change arrived Saturday, as the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline came online nationwide. The number to dial is just three digits, 988, instead of the clunky and impossible-to-remember hotline, 1-800-273-8255, which will remain operational along with the new 988 service.

"In a suicide or mental health crisis, seconds count," said Jennifer Snow, national director of government affairs, policy and advocacy for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Snow pointed out that the 988 hotline will be answered by those with mental health expertise, a lifesaving upgrade.

This is a huge step forward for those with loved ones at risk, as well as those of us who are ourselves prone to suicidal ideation.

Suicide prevention hits close to home

This is personal to me in a number of ways.

My friend Taylor Brorby disclosed in his new memoir, "Boys and Oil: Growing Up Gay in a Fractured Land," several times in his life when he contemplated suicide. In eighth grade, he had been bullied by three classmates in his small North Dakota town, where anti-gay slurs were routinely hurled in his direction.

Taylor told me he wound up making a list of "reasons to die" and "reasons to live with a pistol next to me." In grad school, when he was estranged from his parents over his sexuality, he explained how he climbed a bridge during the middle of the night, intending to take his life, only to be yanked back by passing cyclists. “It wasn’t that I even felt off, that I felt ‘depressed,’” he said. “In these moments, (suicide) almost felt logical, a foregone conclusion.”

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Taylor is far from alone. In 2022, a Trevor Project survey reported that 45% of LGBTQ youth considered attempting suicide in the past year. Nearly 20% of transgender and nonbinary youth attempted suicide, and LGBTQ youth of color reported higher rates than their white peers. These young people are at higher risk because of how they are mistreated – bullied and beaten – and stigmatized in schools and their communities.

I asked Taylor what he thought about the new 988 hotline. He didn't mince words: "It shortens the gap between help and support and what could result in self-harm. I've committed 911 to memory since I was 4. To have a three-digit number now available for suicide prevention will literally save people from having to stop, Google and then call a 10-digit number."

Nearly half a million Americans died by suicide from 2010 to 2020, when the suicide death rate jumped 12%, according to a new Kaiser Family Foundation study. Guns accounted for more than half of all suicides in 2020. I'm reminded that Taylor had access to a handgun in eighth grade, when he was 13 years old.

New lifeline especially helpful for people of color

Calling 911 for help during mental health or suicide crises has been especially dangerous for people of color, leading to avoidable deaths.

Let me jump back to the shocking Insider story from this year. Among the families profiled in the story was that of Jamarion Robinson, 26, a Black man who had studied political science and played football in college. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia, according to his mom, who said she woke up one morning to find Jamarion pouring gasoline throughout her house. She thought calling 911 would result in assistance. Instead, it triggered a warrant for Jamarion's arrest. When police officers found him several weeks later, they shot him 59 times. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

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Jamarion's death is not unique. Last month, NAMI released the results of a poll conducted with Ipsos, reporting that 85% of Black Americans say they would be afraid the police might hurt them or their loved ones while responding to a mental health crisis. 

Still not convinced? Nearly 1 in 4 people shot and killed by police from 2015 to 2020 had a documented mental illness, and police killed Black and Hispanic Americans at disproportionately high rates, according to Washington Post data.

Steven Petrow

That’s why the 988 system is expected to provide the greatest benefit to Black, Latino and Indigenous people.

Yes, the 988 launch brings a new day for those suffering from mental health issues, although provider shortages will continue to hamper the crisis response system in some areas. Advocates rightly worry the service may be severely overloaded, especially with call volumes projected to jump from 4 million in 2020 to as high as 12 million within the next year.

To meet that demand, states must allocate more funding to allow for more hiring with a racially and culturally diverse staff.

With the right resources, this 988 hotline can help overcome 911's weaknesses to meet our nation's mental health needs. In too many instances, it's a matter of life or death. 

Steven Petrow, a writer on civility and manners and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, is the author of five etiquette books, including "Stupid Things I Won't Do When I Get Old." Follow him on Twitter: @stevenpetrow