1 in 4 calls made to 988 suicide and crisis lifeline not being answered in Texas, report finds

Erica Simon Image
Thursday, June 29, 2023
988 lifeline overcoming challenges as it sees influx in calls
The 988 suicide and crisis lifeline is 1-year-old, but we're learning an alarming number of calls are going unanswered.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- The new National 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is turning a year old, but we're learning an alarming number of calls are going unanswered.

Here's how it's supposed to work:

When someone calls 988 for help, someone from a local crisis center should pick up. The center that responds is based on the caller's area code.

But a new report found that the answer rate in Texas is only 75% - that means one in four calls are not being picked up locally. Instead, the calls are re-routed to a national backup call center, but federal officials acknowledge they aren't as equipped to provide local services -- when time may be of the essence.

SEE ALSO: FCC votes to make '988' the suicide hotline number

So what's the problem?

More than two million Americans have called into the 988 lifeline since its launch in July 2022. That's a 45% increase in volume over the old, 1-800 number that 988 replaced. Officials say staffing levels are struggling to keep up with that demand -- at a time when the mental health crisis is worsening.

"I've seen lots of psyches. I've been in different hospitals, and I've had different suicide attempts over the years," Lesley Hooper, who came to the ABC13 studios to share her story, said.

Hooper doesn't look like what she's been through. At a young age, she was diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder, and in 2015 almost succeeded in taking her life, but was sent a lifeline.

"The worst time of my life, but the best thing that ever happened to me because I got linked up with the Harris Center, and got with a doctor there that explained my different mental health disorders for the first time to me, because it had never been explained to me," she said.

The Harris Center for Mental Health handles a lot of the calls and texts to 988. Since it's been simplified from a hard-to-remember 1-800 number, it's seen a huge spike. The problem is, there are not always enough trained professionals and nurses to go around.

"If you can hold that line, someone is going to be there for you. But now, we have to work on the back end," Angelina Hudson, the executive director for NAMI Greater Houston, said.

That work, according to Hudson, is already underway. She says organizations are working to fast-track a program for people to go through mental health training. That also involves getting social workers and folks in similar fields trained.

"Whatever your undergrad is, if you're interested in being part of the solution, there are programs looking for you," Hudson continued.

Hooper says for most, 988 is a way better fit than calling 911 and risking having untrained people respond to your mental crisis.

SEE ALSO: Suicide prevention: New 988 hotline is the 911 for mental health emergencies

Sometimes, all you need is someone to talk you through, which she now does for the same place that helped save her -- the Harris Center. She's a program assistant for the suicide care initiative.

"I think my biggest message to people out there is we can live a life that we love. We can succeed, and we can do things no matter what our diagnosis is. No matter what we've been through, we can get up and become survivors and thrivers," Hooper said.

Hudson says we have got to get past stigmas to make real progress as a society. Technically, we're all on a continuum of mental illness and wellness; some days, we're closer to one side or the other.

The great news is: there is help out there. You are cared about, and your life matters. If you're going through a mental crisis or thinking about suicide, or know someone who is, please. Call or text 988. It could be the best thing you ever do.

If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide, or worried about a friend or loved one, help is available. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988, or text TALK to 741-741 for free confidential emotional support 24 hours a day 7 days a week.

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