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Mental health advocates hope new 988 help number will mark turning point

In just a few days, a new three-digit mental health hotline is set to go live across the country: 988.
For Angela Kimball, mental health advocacy work isn’t just part of her job at Inseparable, a nonprofit that focuses on improving mental health policy. It’s a personal calling, too.
Call centers around the country are bracing for more callers when 988 launches.
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts or is in need of mental health help, you can call the current National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. The 10-digit number will remain active, even after 988 launches on July 16.
Posted at 9:20 AM, Jul 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-14 11:20:26-04

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — For Angela Kimball, mental health advocacy work isn’t just part of her job. It’s a personal calling, too.

“I had a son with a mental health condition and never felt like I could call the lifeline because that wasn't really the issue,” Kimball said. “He wasn't necessarily suicidal, and yet he had so many crises where we needed help.”

That experience led Kimball to her work as senior vice president of advocacy and policy for Inseparable, a nonprofit that focuses on improving mental health policy.

She says the new 988 hotline could become a game-changer.

“Essentially, the mission of the lifeline is expanded,” Kimball said. “It is now the suicide and mental health crisis lifeline.”

It’s one that call centers around the country are bracing for.

“We do believe that when the national suicide prevention lifeline rolls out the 988 hotline number, the shorter number, they expect to see a sharp increase in volume, and we will need funding support to meet that need,” said Sharon L’herrou, whose helpline services the Treasure Coast area of Florida.

For Kimball, the key to 988 she said is the response it will generate that is different from calling that other three-digit emergency number.

“For the vast majority of people out there, the only number they know to call is 911, and that's police, fire or ambulance,” Kimball said. “The problem with a law enforcement response is that law enforcement is fundamentally trained to view the world as a threat.”

The response she experienced during her son’s mental health episode remains with her to this day.

It was different because in Oregon, along with law enforcement, a behavioral expert also showed up.

“This woman talked so gently with my son, took him around the house, talked to me. She could tell that he was not doing well,” Kimball said. “But instead of talking to him in medical terms, clinical terms, that would have turned him off, she spoke to him about what he was feeling and what he needed.”

It's what Kimball said she hopes 988 will lead to an appropriate response to a mental health call. As for her son, Alex, he later passed away in a car accident.

“I lost him a couple of years ago,” she said.

However, her experiences in getting him mental health help when he needed it stayed with her.

“Everybody deserves to have that kind of dignified response that's respectful, that really is attuned to what people need,” Kimball said. “Now, we're on a path to something very, very different. And that's what brings me a lot of hope.”

It is hope that is hinging on three simple numbers.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts or is in need of mental health help, you can call the current National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or click here. The 10-digit number will remain active in perpetuity, even after 988 launches on July 16.