A new Wall Street Journal report finds that one in six calls to National Suicide Prevention Lifeline ended without callers reaching a counselor.

A new report by the Wall Street Journal raises questions on whether the launch of a new national mental health crisis/suicide prevention number, 988, will be able to fulfill its mission to make it easier for more people to connect with counselors.

The newspaper’s analysis found that 1.5 million calls out of 9.2 million calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline between 2016 and 2021 ended before the caller reached a counselor. Callers were either disconnected or abandoned the calls.

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The report comes days before the July 16 switch from the crisis line’s 10-digit number to the three-digit, 988. On that date all telecommunication carriers must provide access to 988, which will direct calls to free crisis counseling at one of approximately 200 crisis centers across the country. The three digits will be easier to remember and will likely lead to an increase in calls but there are concerns that call centers across the country won’t be able to handle the demand.

The need for services is great. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the United States had one death by suicide every 11 minutes in 2020. Suicide was the second leading cause of death for ages 10-14 and 25-34. And a recent Kaiser Family Foundation brief notes that suicide deaths are increasing  fastest among people of color, males, younger individuals, and individuals living in rural areas.

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A June 2022 report by RAND surveyed 180 officials on their preparedness for the launch of 988. Fifty-one percent said they weren’t involved in the development of a strategic plan related to the launch and only 16 percent reported they had developed a budget to support 988 operations. And call centers are still looking for crisis counselors and staff for mobile response units, which dispatch mental health professionals and paramedics when people are in crisis, according to NPR.

Although the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020 mandated the creation of 988, it didn’t require states to expand crisis call centers or mobile response networks, noted Jerome Adams, M.D., former U.S. surgeon general, in an opinion piece for USA Today. Indeed, a recent Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) issue brief notes that though the federal government mandates 988, states are responsible for most of the funding and implementation.

“Despite the rising need for behavioral health-trained clinicians, few states and localities have an adequate infrastructure to treat people with mental illness. As a result, even with 988, those in crisis might find it hard to get effective help, especially in rural communities,” Dr. Adams wrote.

To help with the transition to 988 and beef up capacity for crisis call centers, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) provided $282 million in 2021 and this spring awarded nearly $105 million in grants to states and territories.  The funds were to be used to improve response rates, increase capacity to meet future demand, and ensure calls initiated in their states or territories are first routed to local, regional, or state crisis call centers. 

But because state officials are unsure they have enough funds and staff to handle all the expected calls to 988 as well as long-time funding needs, Politico reports they are planning on a quiet launch for the new hotline number on Saturday, rather than a marketing campaign with much fanfare.