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A New 988 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (And Why It Changes How You'll Make Local Calls)

A photo shows a man using a cell phone with the focus on the bright screen illuminating his fingers as he touches its screen.
Jenny Kane
/
Associated Press File
The FCCs decision to make 988 the number for a national suicide prevention lifeline means more than 30 states, including Vermont, will now have to dial a 10-digit phone number to make even local calls.

By October, Vermont will be among more than 30 states that will require a full 10-digit number to make even local calls. It’s part of the effort to make a nationwide 988 suicide prevention lifeline, and mental health experts hope the change could save lives. The Federal Communications Commission is making 988 the code to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Vermonters will have until October to get used to dialing the 802 area code before making even local calls.

The pandemic has seen calls related to suicide coming into Vermont's mental health crisis lines grow, from between 160-190 calls every month prior to the pandemic to about 245 calls per month since September, and upwards of 260 calls per month since January. 
 
VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Alison Krompf, the director of Quality Accountability at the Vermont Department of Mental Health and the state's de facto suicide prevention coordinator, about what the change mean for Vermonters and who will be answering those calls if a Vermonter dials the 988 lifeline. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, help is available

Mitch Wertlieb: I want to talk about this general change that's going to affect Vermonters most directly. By October, we'll all be dialing 802 to reach a Vermont number. That's even if we're calling in-state, or even somebody right next door. Why is Vermont among the states that will have to switch to 10-digit dialing?

Alison Krompf: Vermont is among those states because we happen to have a place in Vermont that uses a nine 988 prefix already for their seven-digit phone number. So if you have a friend in North Troy, Vermont, and you were to try to reach them, you were down 988-5555, or whatever their number might be. And so, we are one of 36 states that has that 988 prefix currently, which requires us to make the shift.

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We don't want to cross over, obviously, with this very important line for suicide prevention. So, talking about this 988 lifeline, aren't there already local and state suicide helplines available? What would this mean for those numbers?

Yes. We have a wonderful crisis system in Vermont for mental health that is accessible 24/7, and those are crisis teams, and they exist at our community, mental health agencies and every region of the state. However, what they are not is Lifelines, meaning that they're not designed to have a person at the end of that phone at all hours of the day.

So, after hours — after 5 p.m. for most agencies, and on the weekends — they exist on a pager system. What that does is, it makes it so that if someone's looking to connect, or needs to talk at 2 a.m., you're paging someone out of bed, usually. That's what they're there for. But most of the time, we use that service for them to be seen face-to-face.

This is a different model. This would be a model where you could call, and the person is on the other end, expecting to have a conversation for as long as it takes. So in preparation for the upcoming shift to 988, we expect that will increase calls, just by shifting to a three-digit number and building awareness. So starting by the end of May, we have a second center coming on board, and they'll be covering the nights and weekends to round us out to 24/7 coverage for Vermonters calling the lifeline.

What's happening now when somebody who is in crisis has to make a phone call, could be in the middle of the night? Are those calls right now answered by another Vermonter, or are they sent out of state?

Right now, those calls are answered by a person in Vermont, if you were to call your local crisis center. If you were to call the one National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK (8255)) as a Vermonter, most of the time you would reach out of state. We’ve only very recently started having in-state call response to that line. So, a year or two ago, you would have reached New Hampshire, potentially Kentucky, or another state.

When should we think of dialing 988 as opposed to dialing 911? That seems to be ingrained in the national consciousness, if you're in an emergency or crisis, 911 is the number that pops into somebody's mind. How would you sort of differentiate those two things, 988 versus 911?

One of the things that we have a group coming together on right now is to make sure we're really appropriately messaging the difference.

The biggest difference is, if you're already hurt — if you have taken action on attempting to harm yourself — then 911 is the response that you want. You're going to need someone to come, potentially with an ambulance, and get you to the health care that you need.

If you are not [hurt], but you are contemplating, or you need to talk through to prevent some kind of harm, then 988 is the right place to go.

What's the message to somebody who really is hurting, and needs to talk to somebody? I mean, should they feel like these kinds of phone calls can make a difference and actually save a life?

One of the biggest risk factors for folks who are contemplating ending their lives is they often feel like a burden, and they don't want to bother anyone. And so I think one of the best things about this resource is they are there, they exist on the other end of that phone, to talk to you. That is what they're there for. It is not a burden. It is exactly what they want to be doing, and what they're trained to do.

We've seen great evidence that the people who access this line feel better afterwards. We ask them those questions. We're tracking that data. Over 80% of responders said that they felt like, after they spoke to someone over the phone, they were de-escalated. They felt better. They had hope.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb.

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