Hope got a new number with the launch of the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline in July 2022. This three-digit number is celebrating its one-year anniversary, providing free, confidential support for those who are experiencing thoughts of suicide, a mental health or substance use related crisis, or any other kind of emotional distress. People who are concerned about a loved one can call the lifeline, too.
The lifeline was implemented nationally on July 16, 2022. Though implementation was federally mandated, states have been responsible for the ongoing funding and operation of local call centers.
Two ADAMH provider agencies that have years of crisis response experience serve as 988 operators in Franklin County. North Central Mental Health Services responds to 988 calls, with Netcare Access providing back-up and response to text and chat.
Throughout last year, calls to the lifeline have increased dramatically. North Central went from answering 173 calls in July 2022 to answering 1,246 calls last month (June 2023).
This data does not account for calls to other crisis lines that North Central has managed for years. While 988 is meant to be a short, easy-to-remember number, it will take time for awareness to spread, similar to when 911 was first introduced. In the meantime, whether Franklin County residents call one of the legacy crisis lines or 988, they will reach the same trained counselors and have the opportunity to be linked to local services.
In Ohio, 988 funding was ensured through 2025 with $46 million allocated for lifeline operations in the state’s new biennial budget. However, there is no long-term, permanent funding source. Because of the importance of a behavioral health lifeline to the community, the ADAMH Board of Franklin County invests $1.3 million annually to help fund 988 and other critical local call lines.
What happens when you call 988
Calls to 988 are anonymous. The only information the call center receives is the person’s phone number.
“A lot of people are afraid that if they call 988, it’s going to route them directly to the police, and that’s not the case,” said Ali O'Donnell, Director of 988 and Suicide Prevention Services at North Central. “Our center will answer the phone and ask what’s going on and go through a lengthy assessment to assess the immediate safety and figure out if there’s any resources or referrals we can help with.”
Callers can choose to identify themselves, and for those who are interested North Central will scheduled follow-up calls to check in after a few days.
The people behind the lifeline
At North Central, calls are answered by a mix of staff and volunteers. The volunteers go through extensive training, including role playing scenarios and observing others take calls. “We are lucky to have some really great people here who are so committed to the cause, and it’s really cool to see,” said Ali. “We’re always looking for more volunteers to help us meet increasing demand.”
Anyone interested in volunteering can visit North Central’s website, navigate to the employment section, search for “Suicide Prevention Volunteer” and fill out an application.
Ali has occasionally staffed the phone lines herself. “It makes you feel really good when you can help someone. It’s been incredible to have those conversations with people, and to see that just talking is really that helpful,” said Ali. “It’s powerful when someone listens to you, and it really makes all the difference to have a listening ear of someone who cares.”
Rick Baumann, Assistant Director for Suicide Prevention at North Central, lost his son to suicide. Rick was a longtime volunteer at North Central before becoming an employee. Whether it’s through one of his support groups or through answering 988 calls, he knows that he’s being helped just as much. “Any time you help somebody else, you’re helping yourself,” said Rick.