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Encore: Examining how effective the national mental health helpline has been

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It's been nearly six months since the launch of 988. That's the newest number to reach the national Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. The number is easy to remember, and that's important for someone who is in an emotional crisis. In a short time, the support line has expanded its reach. There are call centers across the country. But how effective is the new, shorter number? NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee has an update.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline received over 1.7 million calls, texts and chats in its first five months. That's nearly half a million more than made with the old 10-digit suicide prevention lifeline during the same period the year before.

KIMBERLY WILLIAMS: We see the uptick in volume as an indicator that more people are aware of the service and are able to access it.

CHATTERJEE: Kimberly Williams is the president and CEO of Vibrant Emotional Health, the nonprofit that oversees the national 988 network. She says not only did more people reach out, more people were connected to help.

WILLIAMS: Significant investments in capacity at the federal, state and local levels really helped to ensure that the lifeline was able to respond to many more people in crisis.

CHATTERJEE: For one, there were fewer abandoned calls compared to 2021, and average wait times to speak to a counselor fell from close to three minutes in November 2021 to just 36 seconds last November. Dr. John Palmieri is overseeing the 988 launch for the federal government.

JOHN PALMIERI: So more people are being connected to those trained counselors, and they're being connected more quickly to the lifesaving services that are available.

CHATTERJEE: He says there's been a huge rise in people connecting with 988 through texts and chats, a preferred mode of contact by younger people.

PALMIERI: Those younger people in crisis tend to be in more acute stages of distress. And so making sure that they're connected to the lifeline more quickly is critically important as well.

CHATTERJEE: Community Crisis Services in Hyattsville, Md., is one of the 200 or so centers that make up the national 988 network. Tim Jansen heads the organization. He says the recent federal investments have helped him beef up capacity.

TIM JANSEN: We probably had roughly 75 or 80 folks that work the phones and chat. And so now we're up to pushing 300.

CHATTERJEE: But, he adds, other crisis centers across the country are still struggling to hire.

JANSEN: You know, it doesn't pay a million dollars. The work can be hard. There's secondary and tertiary trauma related to listening to calls, you know, or even doing chats.

CHATTERJEE: And data shows that some states are doing a lot better than others. In Maryland, where Jansen works, the 988 response rate in November was 89%; in Texas, it was 63%. Jansen adds that connecting people to continuing mental health care in their community remains a big challenge across the country.

JANSEN: There's a significant shortage of social workers and mental health professionals that people can see. People wind up at places that have long waiting lists.

CHATTERJEE: And until there are more providers in communities, he says, 988 can only do so much to address someone's ongoing mental health needs.

Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.