Newport Mental Health

What is 988? Three Numbers That Can Save a Life

By

– Newport Mental Health Chief Strategy Officer

988 is a suicide and crisis lifeline answered by trained crisis counselors who help people experiencing suicidal thoughts, substance use and/or mental health crises, or any kind of emotional distress. Help is available 24 hours a day by voice or text to 988 on your phone, or through the chat feature on the website 988lifeline.org. People can call for themselves or if they worried about a loved one.  

Jack Reed, Rhode Island’s U.S. Senator, championed the establishment of this simple three-digit 988 number you can call – nationwide – to get immediate help for someone contemplating suicide or experiencing a behavioral health crisis. Here in Rhode Island, 988 is answered by trained crisis counselors at BH Link in East Providence. This is the state’s 24/7 crisis center for mental health and substance use disorder issues, which also offers in-person, walk-in help 24/7. 

Do I Call 988 or 911? 

988 helps with when someone has or exhibits suicidal thoughts or actions, is having a mental health crisis, or is experiencing a substance use crisis, such as needing help addressing alcohol use or use of illegal drugs. 988 is not for medical emergencies or public safety issues. 

  • When you have an urgent behavioral health crisis, call 988.  
  • When you have a criminal, fire, or emergency medical situation, call 911.  

As you know, 911 calls are routed to local police or fire departments. But less than 3% of behavioral health crisis calls require a law enforcement response, which is where 988 comes in.  

When you call the 988 suicide and crisis hotline, you are connected to a counselor who focuses specifically on behavioral health and who can de-escalate the immediate crisis. You may also be connected with one of Rhode Island’s three Certified Community Behavioral Health Centers (CCBHCs) – Thrive Behavioral Health in Warwick, Community Care Alliance in Woonsocket, or Newport Mental Health – which can dispatch mobile crisis clinicians to your home or location.  

988 counselors can also connect you to additional services. This innovation in crisis response means that help extends well beyond the phone call. 988 counselors are knowledgeable about statewide resources such as BH Link crisis beds, the availability of substance use services such as detox/rehabilitation beds, outpatient recovery services, and mental health services. Or they may direct you to a CCBHC that provides same-day walk-in visits with a clinician, who will start designing a long-term treatment plan. 

How is Rhode Island’s 988 Doing? 

Rhode Island’s 988 call center has been in operation since July of 2022. Looking at the recent available data, 563 calls were answered in December 2023, and 727 in January of 2024. The average call length for both months is just under 15 minutes. Add to this the fact that Newport Mental Health’s new Rhode Island Outreach (RIO) crisis response team averages 300 responses a month, from their own crisis line (401-846-1213), which is in addition to 988, and the need for a robust behavioral health crisis response system is evident.  

As the awareness of 988 grows, call volume will increase. RIO is now part of the 988 response team, adding another in-person resource for callers in distress. 

Evidence shows that talking about suicide, reducing access to lethal means of self-harm, following up with loved ones, and most importantly connecting people immediately to specialized ongoing services reduces the risk of suicide and overdose and saves lives. Suicide and overdose are preventable, and 988 is saving lives in Rhode Island. 

Jamie Lehane is Chief Strategy Officer of Newport Mental Health in Middletown. Peace of Mind, which is co-written with Kristan McClintock, runs in the Newport Daily News and online at newportri.com.