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988 is getting more calls in Utah, but the lifeline’s shorter number may not be what’s at play

Crisis worker answering calls at Utah Crisis Line, which is operated by the Huntsman Mental Health Institute.
Courtesy of Jerilyn Stowe
Huntsman Mental Health Institute.
Crisis worker answering calls at Utah Crisis Line, which is operated by the Huntsman Mental Health Institute.

The Utah Crisis Lifeline has seen an increase in calls since the national 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline launched. Between August and July, there was a 7% increase. But it’s hard to tell if the shorter phone number was the cause because the Utah Crisis Line tends to see higher call volumes every month.

It’s hard to pinpoint why the number of calls is continually increasing, a trend in place even before 988.

“I think part of it is people are more comfortable being honest about how life can impact their mental health and are more willing to reach out for support,” said Rachel Lucynski, the director of community crisis intervention and support services for the Huntsman Mental Health Institute. “And I think we’re seeing a lot of additional social and economic stressors.”

Partners in other states that didn’t have a statewide crisis hotline before 988 told Lucynski that they are also seeing higher call volumes.

“In Utah, we’ve had a pretty good system in place. Of course, there’s always programs to increase and access to improve for people,” she said. “But for now, we’re seeing very manageable and gradual volume increases that are in line with historical averages.”

The new three-digit number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline rolled out on July 16. Previously, individuals had to call 1-800-273-8255. The old number is still active, but lawmakers and mental health advocates hope the shorter number will be easier for people to remember.

If you call with a Utah area code, you will be connected to the Utah Crisis Line, which is operated by the Huntsman Mental Health Institute and staffed with certified crisis workers.

“If our team is very busy at the time and that call can’t be answered in 3 minutes or less, then it will roll over to a national backup center and a regional lifeline call center will answer that call,” Lucynski said.

When a crisis worker answers, Lucynski said the worker will ask questions to understand why the person is calling and assess how safe the person is.

“Do they need emotional support and help navigating the behavioral health system? Or are they potentially at risk for thinking about taking their own life or actively attempting suicide?”

Lucynski said the caller does not have to tell the crisis worker their name or location. The crisis worker can talk with the person over the phone to offer support or deploy a Mobile Crisis Outreach Team to meet with the person. These teams consist of a licensed clinician and certified peer specialist who has personal experience with mental health or substance use challenges.

Sometimes law enforcement does have to get involved, but it is less than 2% of the time, Lucynski said.

Before 988 was launched, the Utah Office of Substance Use and Mental Health conducted focus groups to understand what a person needs when they call a crisis line, barriers that may prevent some communities from calling and concerns about the crisis line itself. The agency spoke with people from rural communities, youth and young adults, disabled people, LGBTQIA+ individuals and people of color.

“We all know that [crisis line services] is not for [undocumented immigrants],” said one focus group participant, putting words to concerns about police or immigration officers responding.

Others said the crisis line needs to have culturally-responsive services so that everyone feels they can use 988.

J. Tekulvē Jackson-Vann is a licensed marriage and family therapist, chief clinical officer at Two Brothas Counseling and specializes in working with queer people of color. Jackson-Vann said there is quite a bit of misinformation about suicide hotlines, especially in communities of color.

“I think it is important that we also acknowledge that there have been disparities in the mental health services in communities of color,” he said. “And rather than present the solution as, ‘Hey, just trust me.’ We have to do our job as mental health professionals to earn the trust of the communities that we’ve injured in the past.”

Kimberly Applewhite, a Utah licensed clinical psychologist and racial stress and trauma researcher, said she has not heard any concerns from people of color about 988. However, she has heard concerns from people about who is coming to your home when Mobile Crisis Outreach Teams are dispatched and if the police are a part of those teams.

Even though she has not heard specific concerns about 988, she said that doesn’t mean there isn’t distrust of the crisis line.

When the COVID-19 vaccine was rolled out, Applewhite said there was a targeted outreach to Black communities to address some myths about the vaccine, how it was developed and how it was released so quickly. Applewhite said it could be a good idea to do something similar with 988 so communities of color know what it is for, when to call, what happens when you call, address concerns and make sure lines of communication are open.

“There’s a lot of power in these bigger entities being able to say, ‘We wonder if this is a concern for you and we’re going to speak to that,’” Applewhite said.

The Office of Substance Use and Mental Health is planning on having future focus groups about 988, similar to the ones they held before. The agency has not solidified when those sessions will happen.

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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