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At 988 call centers, more young people are reaching out for help

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Posted at 11:21 AM, Jan 04, 2023

COLUMBIA, Md. — There are days when it seems like the phones inside the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center never stop ringing. On the other end of those calls are people who need help.

Samantha Ryan is part of a nationwide network of trained professionals who are responsible for keeping 988, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, up and running.

The calls range from people dealing with suicidal ideation to people struggling to pay their electric bills and unsure where to turn.

“We’re trying to get them what they need and in the right direction,” Ryan said.

Crisis call centers could only be reached by dialing a 1-800 number until July 2022. After the phone number was dropped to three digits, call volume spiked by nearly 30%. Advocates believe that's because the three-digit number is much easier to remember.

“It is lifesaving. It has changed access, and everybody can remember three numbers,” said Mariana Izraelson, who serves as the executive director of Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center.

In addition to providing in-patient mental health care, employees also staff 988 phone lines. Nationwide, 988 relies on nonprofits to serve those in crisis 24 hours a day.

Calls come in from across the country.

“It is not easy to pick up the phone and tell a stranger how you’re feeling,” Izraelson said.

“There’s an understanding for us, by the time a person called us, they were in a significant level of crisis and stress that they were willing to pick up the phone and tell a stranger, 'I need help,'” she added.

Since 988 went live, there's been an uptick in the number of young people reaching out for help. Counselors can also be reached by texting 988, which provides more access for teens. Before July, Grassroots use to field 50 texts a day. That number is now more than 2,000.

“Kids will text us from school, work, wherever they are and get a quick response immediately,” she noted.

With the increased call volume, there are two things that Izraelson said call centers like hers need: More funding from the federal government and more staff.

“It’s not just the volume of calls, the length of calls," she said. "Calls can be up to an hour."

The average call to 988 lasts between 30 and 40 minutes.

The job can also be mentally taxing, making it hard to find people who want to do this type of work.

“It takes a lot of courage to be the one answering that phone call,” Izraelson said.

Regardless of some of the hurdles, most calls end on a positive note. Ryan said it gives her comfort that she can help save a life.

“I hope you have a great afternoon, take care of yourself," she told a caller.