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New 988 hotline already saving lives

REXBURG, Idaho (KIFI)- On July, 16 2022, the phone number 988 took over as the new mental health crisis hotline, replacing the previous 10-digit number hotline. This was in response to the growing mental health crisis in the nation.

Elizabeth "Liz" Stephenson, a mental health counselor and director of the Eating Disorder Center in Rexburg, said the new easy-to-remember number is already saving lives.

"There are so many people who struggle with suicidal thoughts on a range. But when it gets really severe, they're not in a mental place that they can think through logically, necessarily to think about a national hotline number like we have had in the past, an 800 number. So, 988 is short, easy to remember when their part of the brain up here (as she points to the front of her head) isn't working as well," said Stephenson.

Before the hotline was officially changed to the 988 number, Stephenson said mental health providers only had two ways to help those in crisis outside of their visits. "Up to this point, really, our only recourse has been to tell a client to either go to the hospital after hours when they can't come to the clinic or to call 911 if they have an emergency. And that's put a big load on our law enforcement situation. And so to have 988 where they can reach out to trained mental health professionals who are trained to deal with crisis situations like this, they're getting right to the help that they need," she said.

In the United States, there was one death by suicide every 11 minutes in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Suicide was the second leading cause of death for young people aged 10-14 and 25-34. Studies have shown that after speaking with a trained crisis counselor, most Lifeline callers are significantly more likely to feel less depressed, less suicidal, less overwhelmed, and more hopeful.

The 988 hotline will function very similarly to the 911 emergency number. "911 was set up to help with public safety. And I think when it was set up there, there weren't the mental health emergencies that there are now, and that has grown considerably. And so our wonderful law enforcement has to now deal with mental health emergencies that maybe they weren't trained on how to handle. And I know some of them have done a wonderful job in helping in difficult situations," Stephenson said.

She says when someone calls the number it sends it to the nearest local call center similar to how 911 will send the call to the nearest local dispatch center. "The call will go to the closest hub to the area where you live. If that is busy, the calls are busy, it will reroute to the next closest hub. And I believe they're like 16 hubs that are set up right now, manned by hundreds of people, and they hope to get that increased with funding and to get additional help with that as they recognize how great the need is."

"It comes to the most local area. And if the person gets to a place where they're safe and they're feeling better, then that's good. If the person is still in danger and their life is still in danger, then 988 can contact our 911 and have law enforcement come and do a welfare check and make sure that they're going to be safe or if they need to be taken to the hospital, they can make that decision. But either way, it's right. It's now different forces working together, everyone to protect lives and to help them."

Stephenson says as a mental health care giver the 988 number allows her to help those in her care recognize a new strength when they call. "I come from a strength perspective. So when I have a client come in and say, hey, I was having a lot of suicidal thoughts and I called 988. It's like, look at you, you're reaching out to help yourself. You are becoming skillful. You're taking action." She adds, "And that helps them to realize they can help themselves. So professional. Right. It adds that extra layer of safety net, an extra layer of help that I'm not even aware of is going on at that moment. And what a help it is to us, because we care deeply about our clients and we want them to get the help and the care that they need."

The hotline isn't just for those struggling with suicidal thoughts but for anyone struggling with their mental health. "If you're in a difficult moment if you're struggling with a lot of grief, or just any kind of mental, it doesn't necessarily have to be suicide. If you're in a really hard place mentally, you can call any day and you've got people there who can help you feel great," Stephensen said.

The number is also available to those in a substance abuse crisis. "It also is meant for people who are in substance abuse emergencies, and so mental health, substance abuse, emergencies, they can help you with that," Stephenson said.

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Braydon Wilson

Braydon is a reporter for Local News 8 and Eyewitness News 3.

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