Seeking Help? Mental Health Hotlines Offer a First Step

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Key Takeaways

  • A new three-digit hotline number, 988, will be available for people to seek help for their mental health issues in July 2022.
  • Surveys find that mental health hotlines are actually helpful in providing support and directing callers toward treatment.
  • Those who are at a higher risk of suicide should take extra precautions to protect their mental health and reach out for support early.

Just this past month the new National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020 was signed into law, creating a three-digit hotline number for people seeking help with their mental health issues. The Federal Communications Commission chose 988 as the number for this hotline.

The helpline, which will be ready by July 2022, is a free resource offering counseling and support to anyone in emotional distress. Crisis counselors will provide advice on how to cope with mental health issues and information on how to spot signs of distress in friends and family members. These counselors can also give callers referrals to local crisis centers for follow-up care.

“Now that the legislation has become law, it is our highest priority to fully implement 988 over the next two years and to strengthen local crisis service capacity," Robert Gebbia, the chief executive officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, tells Verywell. "988 is a historic opportunity to establish a truly effective mental health and suicide prevention crisis response system in our country."

Dealing with mental health issues requires support. While connecting with friends and family is important, seeking professional, trained help can be beneficial. Mental health hotlines offer trained volunteers and mental health professionals who listen objectively and have the tools to de-escalate crisis situations.

Societal and cultural pressures can make people believe asking for help is a sign of weakness. National mental health hotlines recognize this issue and provide a safe space and resources to help people get through moments of crisis.

What This Means For You

While the 988 hotline isn't yet available, you can still get help. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The hotline provides help to callers over the phone and via chat services. The network also has options for those with hearing impairment; you can use the chat or you can use your preferred relay service. If you are a veteran, there's a text service available for you. Send a text message to 838255 or visit the website to chat.

Hotlines Help

Studies show hotlines provide a real service to callers. A study of 139 callers by the Mental Health Foundation found that almost all respondents felt that the hotline helped them, and helped them feel listened to in a safe space.

The majority of callers, 79%, were satisfied or somewhat satisfied with the helplines’ response, and 81% of respondents reported that helpline staff understood or somewhat understood their concerns. Some callers, however, noted they would have preferred to speak to a worker with more expertise or experience. Nevertheless, the majority felt that contacting the helpline enabled them to cope better, and reported feeling supported, less anxious, less alone, better informed, and more in control.

“People who call the hotline need more than just help during a crisis, they need to be connected to a mental treatment that actually works for continued care," Jeffrey M. Cohen, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York tells Verywell. “Dialectical Behavior Therapy is the most effective treatment for suicidality, but many people do not have access to it.”

National mental health hotlines can be the first step in seeking out therapy or professional treatment. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline features resources on their website to find therapists or support groups in your area. They also recommend creating a safety plan to lean on in moments of crisis, which should include six steps:

  1. Recognize your personal warning signs
  2. Use your own coping strategies
  3. Socialize with others who may offer support as well as distraction from the crisis
  4. Contact family members or friends who may help to resolve a crisis
  5. Contact mental health professionals or agencies
  6. Ensure your environment is safe

Mental Health Issues On the Rise

Depression is a common mood disorder that alters how you feel, think, and function. The condition results from a complex interaction of social, psychological, and biological factors. People who have gone through adverse life events—like unemployment, bereavement, and psychological trauma—are more likely to develop depression. Depression can, in turn, lead to more stress and dysfunction and worsen the affected person’s life situation and depression itself.

While not all depressive disorders lead to suicide, the two are linked. One in four young adults has recently considered suicide and 40% of LGBTQ+ youth have considered suicide, according to Cohen. The pandemic only exacerbated this issue.

“Suicide rates in the US are climbing and the new three-digit national suicide number will hopefully make it much easier to get help," Cohen says. "I’m glad that the three-digit number 988 will replace the current 10-digit suicide hotline number because this will make it much easier for people to get help."

Those who are at a higher risk of suicide should take extra precautions and reach out for support early.

Common risk factors for suicide include:

  • Previous suicide attempts
  • Substance abuse
  • Family history of mental illness
  • Chronic diseases
  • Stressful life events
  • Terminal illness
  • Feelings of isolation, hopelessness, and worthlessness

When people are in a crisis and contemplating suicide, Cohen points out it can be difficult to remember the 10 digit number currently in place. The new 988 hotline will help establish a system similar to the current 911, which will hopefully make it that much easier to reach out during a crisis.

"This new hotline also decreases the stigma associated with mental health concerns. The more openly we talk about mental health, then the more the stigma decreases," Cohen says. "The problem is that mental health is underfunded in this country and many people do not have access to mental health care that actually works.”

A hotline call can be the start of healing. A recent study found that when a deep match was made between volunteers and callers, oftentimes those seeking help called back to the hotline repeatedly to update volunteers on their progress, which "was one element of their work that both callers and volunteers found impactful."

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Mental Health Foundation, Mental Health Helplines Partnership. Life lines: evaluation of mental health helplines.

  2. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Help yourself.

  3. World Health Organization. Depression.

  4. Pendse SR, Lalani FM, De Choudhury M, Sharma A, Kumar N. “Like shock absorbers”: understanding the human infrastructures of technology-mediated mental health support. In: Proceedings of the 2020 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. CHI ’20. Association for Computing Machinery; 1–14. doi:10.1145/3313831.3376465

By Erica Gerald Mason
Erica Gerald Mason is an Atlanta-based writer with a focus on mental health and wellness.