Misinformation spreads about new suicide prevention lifeline 988

Sep 6, 2022, 6:00 PM | Updated: Dec 30, 2022, 11:42 am
suicide 988...
Scene from Church video, "Sitting on the Bench: Thoughts on Suicide Prevention." (IRI)

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah managers of the new suicide prevention lifeline, 988, say since its rollout — misinformation has spread about what happens when you call.

“There’s been a lot of misinformation about 988,” said Quality Improvement and Training Manager for Community Crisis Intervention and Support Services at Huntsman Mental Health, Amanda McNab.

Much of it, she said, has been around who answers when you call.

“The group that used to – and still does receive – the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number, 1-800-273-TALK, they are the group that’s answering 988.”

McNab admits that with 988 being rolled out nationally, a lot of different groups across a lot of different states may not all be getting the same information. And this is leading to different experiences for different callers. A recent report outlined concerns that have spread on social media.

“Honestly, my biggest concern (with the misinformation) is that people won’t use the service. That poeple won’t call when they need to call,” McNab said.

Law enforcement isn’t automatically dispatched

One big source of misinformation, McNab said, has to do with whether law enforcement is dispatched as soon as someone calls.

“This really isn’t true,” she said.

McNab thinks the confusion has to do with how much the 988 number has been compared to 911.

“Early on there was a lot of discussion about 988 being the 911 of mental health,” she said. “But there are a lot of differences.”

The traditional 911 is for medical emergencies, reaching police, fire, EMTs, or reporting a crime. A call to 911 will often end with help being dispatched.

“988 is to get a hold of your local mental health crisis services,” McNab said.

What happens when you call

In Utah, a trained crisis worker will answer. According to McNab, that person tries to focus on the problem that prompted the caller to contact 988.

McNab says law enforcement is only typically called in when a person may be an immediate threat to themselves, or someone else. A visit by police or other rescue workers is more likely if the caller has already acted on something.

“If someone calls and says, ‘I’ve already taken the medications,'” McNab said. Or, if someone discloses they’re actively near lethal means, like a weapon.

And that individual is not willing or capable — whatever verb you want to use — to create some safety for themselves.”

McNab says in those cases, police can help create a safety net to buy time.

The 988 learning curve

McNab says it’s “always possible” that a 988 crisis worker can misinterpret a caller. They may be expressing concerns for their own safety, suicidal thoughts, or ideations which may lead a crisis worker to believe the caller is at imminent risk — and erroneously send police.

“And … it became a very negative interaction for (the caller),” she said. “So (by telling their story on social media) they are letting everybody know.”

And McNab says, often we only hear those negative interactions.

“The more we focus in on when it goes wrong, the more information we’re going to get about how it always goes wrong,” she said.

“Instead of (focusing on) how less than 2% of the contacts and the calls that we get in Utah actually have law enforcement involved.”

Here’s help

If you or anyone you know are struggling with thoughts of suicide, please call 988, the national suicide and crisis lifeline.

Or call 1-800-273-TALK, or the Huntsman Mental Health Institute 1-801-583-2500.

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Misinformation spreads about new suicide prevention lifeline 988