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Editorial: A new, easier way to seek help — dialing 988

In the United States, one person dies by suicide every 11 minutes, on average. The number of people who contemplate taking their own lives or try to do so is even higher — an estimated 1.2 million attempted suicides in a given year.

It’s no surprise the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies suicide as a serious public health problem. In 2020, about 46,000 people died by suicide. It’s the second leading cause of death for people ages 10-14 and 25-34, according to the CDC.

Most often, these tragedies unfold away from public view. The list of mental health challenges that can ultimately lead a person down a path toward suicide is long: substance abuse, economic worries, sexual identity, eating disorders, depression, troubled relationships, physical illness and more. In rare instances, these crises play out more publicly, such as last week when Southold Town police found themselves in a standoff with a man at a home near Town Beach. The man attempted to take his own life and officers quickly intervened to prevent it. 

Four days after that incident, an invaluable tool became much easier to access for anyone in the country facing a mental health challenge. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a vast network of mental health professionals at the ready 24/7 to assist people in need, officially became available by dialing 988, instead of the old 10-digit number. The idea was to create an access number that would be as easy to remember as the 911 emergency number that even children now know by heart. 

The transition to 988 took effect Saturday. The number also receives text messages, which could be a critical improvement for younger people more accustomed to that form of communication.

The plan to transition to 988 actually dates back three years. The Federal Communications Commission staff proposed 988 as a nationwide number in a report to Congress in August 2019. A year later, the FCC adopted rules to establish 988 and on Oct. 17, 2020, the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020 was signed into law.

The 988 line can also be used by people who are worried about a loved one who may need crisis support.

A media release announcing the launch of the 988 access code called it “an important step toward strengthening and transforming crisis care in this country. It serves as a universal entry point so that no matter where you live, you can reach a trained crisis counselor who can help.”

The number also provides specific support for veterans, who can dial 1 after calling 988 to be connected to the Veterans Crisis Lifeline, which serves all members of the nation’s armed forces and those who support them. The Veterans Crisis Lifeline is also available via text message at 838255.

There are risk factors and warning signs that people should know to look for to determine if a loved one is at risk for suicide, particularly if the behavior is new, the Lifeline says. Warning signs can include expressing feelings of hopelessness or being trapped in unbearable pain, increased use of alcohol or drugs, extreme mood swings and withdrawal or self-isolation. 

Other valuable resources are also available closer to home to assist people struggling with mental health issues. The Family Service League has offices in both Mattituck and Riverhead, and helped form the North Fork Coalition for Behavioral Health several years ago to improve access to mental health services for students. Quannacut, part of the Stony Brook Medicine network, also provides critical behavioral health services at Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport and an outpatient facility in Riverhead.

Access to mental health services, particularly during the ongoing pandemic, is more important than ever. Now, the first step toward getting that care requires just three numbers.