Utahns can now dial 988 to reach suicide prevention counselors, as part of new national hotline

The simpler way to access help has been years in the making.

(Jenny Kane | AP) A man uses a cellphone in this Aug. 11, 2019, photo. Utahns who are experiencing a mental health crisis can now dial just three numbers — 988 — to get help from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

As of Saturday, Utahns and people all across the country who are experiencing a mental health crisis can now dial just three numbers — 988 — to get help from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

“This easy-to-remember hotline will save lives,” Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said in September 2020 when the House passed legislation mandating the change. The Utah congressman co-sponsored the bill.

It’s a simple idea — make it easier for people to call for help when they need it. Instead of having to look up a 10-digit phone number, just dial 988.

“It’s absolutely critical to get a quick response, which is the thinking behind 988,” said Rachel Lucynski, director of community crisis intervention and support services at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute. “We recognize that when people are reaching out for the suicide prevention and crisis hotline, that they are potentially in one of the darkest moments of their lives.”

The current national phone number — 1-800-273-TALK (8255) — will also remain available after Saturday.

Calls to 988 will be connected to trained counselors who are part of the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline network. The calls will be routed to local crisis centers based on the area code of the caller’s phone.

In Utah, callers from an 801, 435 or 385 area code will be sent to the Utah Crisis Line and speak to a certified crisis worker employed by the Huntsman Mental Health Institute, which operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Callers whose phones have other area codes will be sent to other local centers — if you have a New York area code, for instance, you’ll talk to someone in New York.

Those taking calls will provide ‘immediate support’

Even as the 988 system launches, planning is underway to switch to geo-based routing instead of routing by area codes, so that everyone is talking to someone in their state. “Obviously, it requires a lot of infrastructure investment and coordination with federal agencies to make that happen,” Lucynski said. “But that is a plan for future development.”

In the meantime, “Any time a call for help comes into a crisis line or suicide prevention line, those team members will provide immediate support,” she said. Ideally, the counselor can de-escalate the situation and then look for local resources to help the caller. “If there is any need, then there’s coordination between the centers to connect the person to their state or regional call center.”

The big unknown is how the switch to 988 will affect the number of people who call for help. “The challenge is that we don’t know exactly what demand will look like once it becomes much easier to remember the number and access to the service,” Lucynski said. “It’s challenging to say we are 100% ready for something that still is, frankly, uncertain. We’re as confident as we can be, but it’s something that we’ll continue to monitor closely.”

And, she said, they have job openings listed at employment.utah.edu.

Utah Crisis Line has seen ‘consistent increases’ in calls each year

In the fiscal year that ended on June 30, the Utah Crisis Line received 102,742 calls — an average of about 8,562 calls a month and about 281 calls a day.

“That’s an 11% increase, year over year, before 988 launches,” Lucynski said. “We’ve seen consistent increases every year. It’s always bittersweet. It’s good to know that people are aware of these services and know where to reach out for help, but it’s also tough to know that we have so many folks in our state who are struggling and need that care.”

And, she added “More than 90% of the time when someone calls in, we’re able to de-escalate that situation and keep people safe and get them connected to longer term care.”

The National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act, which was passed in 2020, gave states two years to prepare for the changeover to 988. There are reports that some states have the equipment in place, but may not have the staff to man the lines.

Lucynski said that is not the case in Utah. “I wouldn’t say it’s a problem here, because we have had really visionary leadership and committed investments over many years to create a statewide crisis line,” she said. “So this has been many years in the making in anticipation of the three digit number becoming a reality.”

She said it’s important for people to know that suicide is preventable.

“It can be really uncomfortable to talk about,” she said. “It can feel very overwhelming or taboo or isolating to experience suicidal thoughts. And there is nothing shameful or wrong about those things. The bravest thing that someone can do is to reach out for support.”

“We just want folks to know that our team is here 24/7, 365,” she continued. “They’re highly trained and compassionate professionals on who are there to listen and provide that hope.”

Editor’s note • If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support by dialing 988, or 1-800-273-8255.

Warning signs of suicide include:

• Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose.

• Talking about being a burden to others.

• Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs.

• Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly.

• Withdrawing or feeling isolated.

• Displaying extreme mood swings.

What to do:

• Do not leave the person alone.

• Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects from the person.

• Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988, or 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

• Take the person to an emergency room, or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.