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New '988' suicide prevention lifeline launches nationwide Saturday

Advocates and lawmakers hope the new number will be as easy to use—and remember—as 911 is now.
Jenny Kane
Advocates and lawmakers hope the new number will be as easy to use—and remember—as 911 is now.

Ohioans facing a mental health or addiction crisis need now only remember three digits: 988.

Starting Saturday, the lifeline goes live across the United States. Advocates and lawmakers hope the new number will be as easy to use—and remember—as 911 is now.

It's a resource Canal Winchester resident and suicide prevention advocate Summerlee Godbolt, 41, wishes she had growing up. The victim of sexual abuse by multiple family members, she made her first of two suicide attempts at the age of 12.

“After I had been raped, I just felt like, you know, that's just how the world viewed me. I was tired of being abused and I was tired of not being heard," Godbolt said.

Godbolt said she likes that the new number is easier to remember, and predicts it will be a game-changer for thousands of Ohioans suffering in silence.

“I don't think I would have made those attempts if I had the ability to talk to somebody. Because once you start talking to somebody and they start to put things into perspective, light starts to shine through all that darkness," she said.

Lori Criss, director of the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, said Ohio has expanded from 12 to 19 call centers in preparation for 988, each covering a specific region.

“The goal is that all of the calls will be answered in Ohio when an Ohioan calls for help, rather than shifting out to some of the national coverage that's happened previously," Criss said.

People using 988 can talk to or text suicide prevention and mental health crisis counselors. Criss said callers can expect to speak with someone who is compassionate and trained to listen and offer support in their time of need.

“If they are having suicidal thoughts or feeling like hurting themselves or someone else, they can call and talk through that and get the right kind of support for that," she said. "If they're feeling anxious or hopeless, they'll be able to call and just have a conversation about that and how to connect to services and support so that they don't progress to suicidal thoughts. So it's very customized.”

Criss and her agency are counting on 988 to catch on. Estimates predict Ohio will see a growth of 65% in the first year of 988, with 25% increases in its second and third years, and 14% growth in year 4 and beyond. This growth will take Ohio from 90,000 calls per year at the present to an estimated 150,000+ calls per year in the future.

“Just like 911 has taken decades to build up to its full capacity, we know that where we are today and where we'll be next year and 10 years from now is going to continue to grow and improve over time," Criss said.

So, how will 988 be paid for?

The Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services has put forward about $20 million in federal funding to cover operational expenses until June of next year.

A bill that would codify and provide ongoing funding for the crisis line remains stalled in the Ohio Senate.

Criss said a positive aspect of the pandemic is that Ohioans seem to be more willing to talk about their mental health needs than ever before.

"We know that suicide is among the top 10 causes of death in Ohio. We know that overdoses and overdose deaths have increased during the pandemic as well. So there's a growing need for support. The good news is there's growing support being put in place," Criss said.

Suicide prevention advocate Summerlee Godbolt said fear can keep people from reaching out to a stranger for help. To that, she said, do it anyway.

"Because sometimes situations will just keep building up and building up ... and then one day, it's built up so much, because you didn't think that you needed any help, and now you're at a point where you don't feel like you can take any more. And that's where I was at. So I would definitely suggest people call and talk. It makes it better."

Copyright 2022 WOSU 89.7 NPR News. To see more, visit WOSU 89.7 NPR News.

Matthew Rand