By Ryan Dickson, Director of Crisis Helplines
So what is 988, exactly? There are a couple different levels we can explain it on. In probably the broadest sense, 988 is what used to be called the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. It is a network of centers like CommUnity Crisis Services all banding together to answer the increasing mental health needs across the country. The network has grown from one of 20 centers to now over 200 state and nationally funded centers.
That growth took place largely over the last year. Our crisis program in particular grew from a staff of around 15 to over 200. We’ve seen over 11,000 contacts from Iowans last year at our center alone! For chats, from April to May we saw a 100% increase in volume, and another 50% further the next month!
Anyone who calls, chats, or texts WILL get an answer, and thanks to this unprecedented growth, on average you won’t have to wait more than 30 seconds to a minute. You’ll also be connected to a center closest to your location and in your state; someone who knows the resources most relevant to you and your needs. You can also call, chat, or text for any reason from “I’m having a rough day and just need to vent about it,” to “I’m having dark thoughts about suicide, and I’m not sure how to stay safe.” The majority of calls do not relate to suicide.
Okay, so that’s a very technical, pragmatic, business-minded way of defining 988. Even as one of its primary facilitators, I like to think of 988 differently. To me, it’s most impactful to conceptualize it from the bottom up. At its essence, 988 is a network of thousands of volunteers and staff. But who are they?
The folks working 988 are, simply put, just people. Some have advanced counseling and social work degrees, some do not. Some are paid for the work, some are volunteers. What they all have in common is intensive, rigorous training and feedback on their helping skills, but primarily even to that, they all have a desire to do the work. They have this because they are friends and family members of those with suicidal ideation. They are peers who have experienced mental health crises themselves. They are dedicated to the cause of support and empowering visitors to the service to find a way through these seemingly impossible times.
So, how do just everyday people with a passion and skillset to help through the seemingly impossible situation actually help? What can you expect when you call?
The most common factor contributing to suicidal ideation is one of isolation. This doesn’t just mean being in a room alone. It means not feeling a meaningful connection to those around you, or to other areas of life. Above all else, what 988 and its staff provide is that missing connection to another person. We provide space to process, someone to listen, and most of all, we empathize. To share and reflect the feelings, to hear the story that brought you to this point, to be given space to express yourself and be seen, heard, and have your pain and experiences, your life, valued. To have the inherent worth of your life reflected back to you in that moment and in that way – that is the service we provide. What is a life if not a story, something to be shared, something to be heard.
You might be wondering what kind of impact an, on average, hour-long conversation could have on thoughts of suicide. Visitors have said things like (and I’m paraphrasing for their anonymity here):
“It means so much that you cared for me and valued my life even if I don’t right now.”
“Talking to you was exactly what I needed tonight.”
“It means so much to me how much dedication you put into making sure I’m okay. I wish I had people in my life like that.”
We’re not therapy, but we often establish long-term relationships with people in need of this connection. They come back because this works. It keeps them safe for now, and many times, safe for life.
You might be hearing something like that and feel overwhelmed. I’m just one person, I don’t have that training… I want to help, but I don’t know where to even begin.
Simply being there is an important first step. We’re already a year in and most people don’t know about 988. We want this number to be synonymous with mental health first aid in a similar way to 911 being ubiquitous and known for physical emergencies. The first and easiest thing you can do is talk about it, spread the word. “I was this blog and learned about 988. Did you know about it? It’s really a massive effort.”
The second thing you can do is pay attention to those around you. I mentioned isolation being a key factor in suicidal ideation, and that you can be isolated even in a crowd. If you sense something is off for someone, check in. Not just with our greeting ritual of “how are you” but follow up with “no really, how are you?”
If you don’t have time, point out “Hey, you seem a bit down. Do you mind if we check in later?” And if you’re having that conversation and aren’t sure where to go, you can call 988 together. We can guide you through a conversation and connect you to appropriate resources.
Lastly, the most intensive thing you can do to start is get trained in LivingWorks ASIST, which is Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training. This is a two-day workshop that CommUnity hosts for free once a month. You can find sign up details here.
In that training, we emphasize asking directly about suicide to destigmatize it, show you how to hear their story, find an anchor point to life, and reinforce that so that together, you can make a safety plan that gets them to tomorrow.
Events like this are critical to raising awareness. Together, our small efforts can aggregate into something massive and incredibly powerful in service of saving lives.