Only when the caller cannot or will not collaborate on a safety plan and the counselor feels the caller will harm themselves imminently should emergency services be called, according to the hotline’s policy. d3sign/Getty Images hide caption
Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Aug. 11, 2022, and has been updated to include a podcast episode from NPR Life Kit.
When the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline launched in July, many mental health providers, researchers and advocates celebrated. Although a national suicide hotline had existed for years, finally there was an easy-to-remember three-digit number for people to call, they said. The shorter number would serve as an alternative to 911 for mental health emergencies.
But not everyone felt the same way. Some advocates and people who had experiences with the mental health system took to social media to voice concerns about 988 and warn people not to call it.
One Instagram post said, “988 is not friendly. Don’t call it, don’t post it, don’t share it, without knowing the risks.” The post, which had garnered over a quarter of a million likes as of this week, went on to list the risks as police involvement, involuntary treatment at emergency rooms or psychiatric hospitals, and the emotional and financial toll of those experiences.
Other posts on Instagram and Twitter conveyed similar concerns, saying that the hotline sends law enforcement officers to check on people at risk of suicide without their consent and that people, especially from LGBTQ+ communities and communities of color, may be forced into treatment.
So is 988 a critical mental health resource or a cause for concern? We decided to dig into these questions, figure out how 988 works, and explain what you need to know before dialing.
Why are some people saying not to call 988?
We reached out to the creators of some of the social media posts to ask them directly.
Liz Winston, who authored the Instagram post calling 988 “not friendly,” said she wanted people to understand all the potential outcomes of calling so they wouldn’t be blindsided by the “traumatizing system” that she experienced.
Last summer, Winston was having suicidal thoughts and visited a hospital in New York. She hoped to speak with a psychiatrist but instead was involuntarily detained in the psychiatric wing of the emergency room. She said that she did not receive any counseling during the 24 hours she spent there and that the experience was “extremely traumatic.”
Winston hadn’t called the hotline, but she said those who do can end up in a similar situation. It’s true that when police respond to calls about people in mental health crises, they often take them to an emergency room or psychiatric hospital.
This story was produced in partnership with Kaiser Health News.
“I realize there is an urge to rescue people in crisis, but the reality is the services that exist make the problem much, much worse,” said Winston, who works in mental health peer support and has started an online support group for people recovering from involuntary treatment.
Research shows suicide rates increase drastically in the months after people are discharged from psychiatric hospitals. Those who were sent involuntarily are more likely to attempt suicide than those who chose to go, and involuntary commitments can make young people less likely to disclose their suicidal feelings in the future. Some people also get stuck with large bills for treatment they didn’t want.
Emily Krebs, a suicide researcher and assistant professor joining Fordham University this fall, said that involuntary treatment is viewed as a necessary part of suicide prevention in the U.S., but that other countries don’t see it that way. The United Nations has called forced mental health treatment a human rights abuse and asked countries to ban it.
Like Winston, Krebs wanted people to be fully informed before deciding to call 988. That’s why she wrote on Twitter that 988 can and will “send police if they deem it necessary.”
That can be dangerous, she said, given that 1 in 5 fatal police shootings in 2019 involved a person with mental illness. Some years, the share has been even higher.
Social media posts warn people not to call 988. Here’s what you need to knowListen · 3:57 3:57 Toggle more options Download Embed Embed
Share this Post