THE 988 SUICIDE HOTLINE: WHY IS PUBLIC AWARENESS SO LOW?
A little over a year ago, the three-digit phone number “988,” became an easy way for people suffering through a number of mental health crises – including, notably, the intention to commit suicide.
At the time, there was a great deal of hope that this effort was going to make a dramatic difference. As Colleen Carr, director of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention told NPR at the time, "The transition to 988 has come to represent a once-in-a-generation opportunity to revisit and reconceptualize how crisis services are resourced and delivered in communities across the country."
The new crisis number was created by a federal law, but it was left to the states to implement it, and according to one study, “State funding earmarked for increases in 988 Lifeline center costs is sufficient in about half of states.”
But, as is often the case, there can be a yawning gap between the development of a new policy, the creation of a new program and its actual implementation. In this case, according to a recently released study in JAMA, “public awareness of 988 is low.”
The study took a close look at the way state legislators publicized the 988 hotline on social media and discovered that after a big splash when it first began, legislators were less inclined to remember that this could be a valuable service for constituents, and so did a pretty poor job of publicizing it.
According to an article in Futurity, ““We found that many state legislators actively communicated about 988 when it was launched in July 2022, but that communication was not sustained over time” said the lead researcher Jonathan Purtle, associate professor in the New York University School of Global Public Health.
What’s more, according to the study, “Few 988 posts mentioned substance use, despite the intent of 988 to be inclusive of such crises.”
“Four in five adults are not familiar with 988 yet,” Stephanie Pasternak, Director of State Affairs for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, told us. “But in the first year of 988, there were five million contacts which was a huge difference than when it was part of the National Suicide Hotline. Still, not until recently has there been much in in the way of public awareness campaigns until just the last couple of months, when Vibrant Emotional Health, the non-profit that operates the 988 system, started a public awareness campaign.”
The moral here: It’s not enough to cut the ribbon when a new bridge opens if there are no signs that help drivers find the bridge when they need it to cross a river.
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