Here's what happens when you dial the 988 suicide prevention lifeline

988 lifeline debuted July 16

988 Suicide Prevention Hotline

ORLANDO, Fla. – More people in Central Florida are dialing 988 for mental health help since the number was introduced this summer, according to the group that runs one of 12 call centers in the state.

The new 988 lifeline for suicide and mental health crises debuted July 16, and according to Heart of Florida United Way, calls to the center from Seminole, Orange and Osceola counties increased 32% in the first 30 days, compared to same period the previous year.

[TRENDING: Shark attacks, kills woman who was on cruise that set sail from Port Canaveral | Kennedy Space Center offers limited-time ticket deal for select Central Florida counties | Become a News 6 Insider (it’s free!)]

It mirrors a trend seen across the country.

According to Vibrant Emotional Health, the group that works with the federal government on 988, says the lifeline received a 45% increase in calls, texts and chats just in the first week the phone number was available.

Updated numbers are expected Friday.

The number of people who commit suicide has risen nearly every year in the last decade.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is the 12th leading cause of death in the United States.

According to data from Mental Health America, the number of adults who seriously thought about attempting suicide in the previous year has increased from 8.8 million reports in 2015 to 11.4 million in the latest statistics released this year.

While a National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has been available for a long time, the new three-digit number was approved in 2020 to make it easier for people to remember, similar to 911.

“It is a new, easier access for people to remember and to get the help they need or want,” said Catherine Rhea, the vice president for Heart of Florida United Way’s 211 call center, which handles the 988 calls.

The lifeline is free, confidential and available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It’s staffed by people trained in crisis intervention and suicide prevention, as well as information referral.

[RELATED: How to get mental health help in Central Florida ]

Rhea says when people dial 988, the call is routed to a local contact center that provides services.

Next, the center asks if the person is safe or in a safe area. If they are not, a call is placed to 911.

The center then talks to the caller to find out what their needs are like, whether that’s counseling, substance abuse services, or something else, and then offer to make a referral based on what’s available to them. Finally, they offer to make a follow-up call to the person who needs help to check on them.

“The majority of contacts through 988 simply just want to talk to someone,” Rhea said. “I think the last report it was only like 35, 30% of our contacts actually received a referral, outside referral. They just want to talk to somebody, they want to explore options and just have a caring voice.”

One benefit to the call center being tied to the United Way is it also runs the 211 hotline, which helps connect people with services ranging from emergency housing assistance to employment training help.

The difference between 211, 988 and 911. (Heart of Florida United Way)

“What we’re finding too is that many people are calling in crisis, but they’re actually having a financial crisis after we talk with them,” Rhea said. “And if we can get them that rental assistance or connection to a food bank or utility assistance, if we can help the financial crisis we can help, hopefully help, alleviate the mental health crisis.”

Rhea says the team at 988 is focused on deescalating crises and only less than 2% of lifeline calls end with a connection to 911.

If a situation can’t be resolved over the phone, Rhea says the team will try to send out a mobile crisis unit, trained professionals who handle crisis services and interventions.

If the situation becomes a life-threatening emergency, a supervisor is brought in to reach out to 911 and the police behavioral risk units.

Rhea wants to make it clear that 911 is only called as a last resort. She says less than 2% of calls to the lifeline end in a call to 911.

“Not everyone who is having a crisis needs a police dispatch, you know?” Rhea said. “That’s why we work very closely with 911 to make sure that doesn’t happen if it’s not really needed.”

Steps to take if you think someone is suicidal

The 988 lifeline offers these steps if you think someone might be suicidal.

  • Look for Warning Signs — Are they withdrawing or isolating themselves? Acting anxious or agitated? Talking about being a burden to others, feeling trapped, or hopeless? Are they looking for a way to kill themselves online?
  • Be sensitive, but ask direct, matter-of-fact questions about suicide.
  • Be willing to listen and be nonjudgmental.
  • Be open to the person’s feelings and accept them. Don’t act shocked.
  • Don’t lecture about the value of life, or whether suicide is wrong.
  • Offer hope that there are alternatives.
  • Remove the means to commit suicide.
  • Get help from crisis intervention agencies.

About the Author:

Christie joined the ClickOrlando team in November 2021.