But callers all over the country can reach a counselor simply by calling 988.
“Having an anonymous opportunity to speak to someone who knows what they’re talking about, who won’t be scared when you say, ‘I don’t know what to do, I’m thinking of hurting myself’ — this is an extraordinary option,” Dr. Trestman said.
Counselors talk through the root of someone’s distress — whether it stems from illness, job loss or family strain, for example. They help callers develop a “road map,” Dr. Draper said, with concrete next steps to take after they hang up, including thinking through who else they can turn to for help, like a therapist or clergy member.
While call lengths vary, they tend to last between 15-20 minutes, Dr. Draper said.
“When a person is in a crisis state, they’re so overwhelmed by the psychic pain they’re experiencing — it’s really hard for them to see all options and actually engage some of their natural coping mechanisms,” Dr. Draper said. Counselors can help “marshal some of those internal resources,” he said.
In an emergency, such as if the caller requires medical attention, 988 will collaborate with local police or hospitals to dispatch services. Beyond that, calls are anonymous. “It’s the same kind of confidentiality you would get at a doctor’s office or at a therapist,” Dr. Draper said.
What about reports that the hotline is understaffed?
In the months leading up to the new number’s launch, The New York Times and other news outlets have reported on looming fears that call centers will not be able to keep up with demand, partly because of insufficient funding, and partly because of a shortage of volunteers to staff the line.
Still, those behind 988 say they are confident the service can provide critical care.
“Does that mean there’s never going to be a wait?” Dr. Draper said. “I can’t promise that. But I can promise that if you hold on, you will eventually get a response from a counselor who’s going to listen to you and care about your situation.”