Delaware, like much of the US, has seen a rise in suicides since the onset of the pandemic. Last year, 138 Delawareans died by suicide, according to the Department of Forensic Science — and those are just the ones reported to the state.
Annie Slease, director of advocacy and education for the National Alliance on Mental Illness branch in Delaware, said she’s seen a “higher need across the board” for mental health services. The nationwide launching of an easy-to-remember crisis hotline number in July hopes to provide a new solution to those in need of emergency mental health services: Just call 988.
What is 988?
What was once a 10-digit number to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has been shortened to three digits. As of July 16, anyone experiencing a mental health crisis can call or text 988 to be connected to a local Lifeline response center. The original hotline — 800-273-8255 — still works.
The transition to the new crisis number began almost two years ago when the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020 was signed into law. Since then, Delaware has received over $1 million in grants to support the planning and implementation of 988.
How does it work?
Anyone can call or text 988 if they or a loved one are experiencing a mental health crisis for free, 24/7 support.
If the caller has a local area code, they will be routed to Delaware’s Lifeline call center, where they can talk to a mental health professional or trained volunteer. These responders offer emotional support and work to deescalate the situation. They can also connect those in need to nearby mental health services if needed.
According to Lifeline, less than 2% of calls to the hotline nationwide result in emergency services needing to be called. Most callers who were considering suicide said that calling the hotline saved their lives.
Lifeline also offers crisis intervention services in Spanish. After dialing 988, callers will have the option to be routed to the national Spanish Lifeline center. A similar option is available to veterans who call 988 for connection to the Veterans Crisis Lifeline. Veterans seeking support over text should still message 838255.
988 versus 911: what’s the difference?
Sometimes, the line between calling emergency services or speaking to a specialist through a hotline can be blurry.
Dr. Y. Claire Wang, associate deputy director of research, evaluation and population health for the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health in Delaware, said that “there are so many discussions that still need to be had” when it comes to determining the best way to respond to a mental health crisis.
Wang, who helped lead the state’s transition to 988, said that in most cases, police intervention is not needed in mental health crises. Sometimes, it can make the situation worse.
“When police officers in uniform show up to our loved ones who are having the worst day of their lives and (treat) this as potentially a police incident is not compassionate or a good use of our resources,” Wang said.
She emphasized that people struggling with mental health issues need treatment, not entanglement with the criminal justice system. The potential for arrest instead of services is even greater for people of color, Wang said.
When should you call 911?
There are still some instances where 911 should be called. If a weapon is involved, if someone has already harmed themselves or others, or if someone has overdosed, first responders should be contacted.
The caller can also ask for a Crisis Intervention Team — or CIT — officer when speaking to emergency dispatch. These are law enforcement officers who have completed a 40 hour training program about responding to mental health crises. Currently, 514 Delaware officers have been trained, according to the local NAMI chapter.
While asking for a CIT officer does not guarantee that one will be able to respond, Slease said that it never hurts to ask. It also helps to reinforce the importance of having CIT officers in the community.
What about local hotlines?
Delaware’s local crisis hotlines will still offer support around the clock. And if you have access to the numbers, Slease said they may be the better choice, especially if you want to be referred to in-person services.
While 988 will hopefully be able to connect callers more directly to local services in the future, Slease said it’s still “a work in progress.” However, if you can’t remember the hotlines, 988 is still a good option.
The Delaware Department of Health and Social Services operates two hotlines through its mobile crisis intervention services. For help in Northern Delaware, call 800-652-2929. For help in Southern Delaware, call 800-345-6785.
The Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families also operates a hotline. Parents or caregivers of children or teens in need of crisis services in Delaware can call 800-969-HELP (4357) or text DE to 741741.
What comes next?
Delaware is still in the “soft rollout” phase of its 988 implementation. Officials haven’t seen a huge uptick in calls, and many people don’t know about it.
Slease and Wang said this isn’t a bad thing.
“We need to be very cautious in building this out and be responsible in leveraging federal and taxpayer dollars so that we can build the most suitable system to serve our state,” Wang said.
It also gives the state the chance to adapt and make tweaks to the system without being overwhelmed — something Slease said is “intentional.” NAMI is currently collecting feedback from people who have used Delaware’s crisis response services to support this effort for improvement.
One major shortcoming of the current 988 system is its geolocation capabilities, Wang said. Unlike 911, someone who calls 988 is routed to the nearest crisis center based on their area code rather than current GPS location. This means that someone living in Delaware with an out-of-state area code will be routed to that state’s crisis center.
Lifeline is also still working to integrate 988 with 911 so that calls can be transferred between the two services, as well as better connect Lifeline with local mental health service providers. These updates are expected in the next few years.
However, enacting these updates may prove difficult. Like most states, Delaware has a behavioral health workforce shortage. At the same time, 988 is expected to increase crisis call volume.
Wang said that considering these factors, the First State’s current funding simply won’t be enough to operate 988 at full capacity. Yet she’s hopeful that a proposed fee similar to Delaware’s existing 911 prepaid surcharge will be passed in the next legislative session to supplement the cost.
Changing the conversation around mental health
The creation of a crisis number similar to 911 for mental health is a big deal in and of itself, Slease said. Just like a shooting or a fire, behavioral health crises should be treated as emergencies, too.
“We’re having more conversations which means we’re working toward normalizing the need for mental health care,” she explained. “I think people are finding these resources sooner now, and we need to keep working on that.”
Addressing this stigma may also encourage people to seek help before things escalate into a crisis. Slease compared it to any other health issue: if symptoms are getting worse, one would see a doctor before things turned critical. Detangling the stereotype that people with mental illness are dangerous is also important, and can help decrease unnecessary law enforcement involvement in behavioral health crises.
NAMI Delaware offers a free HelpLine to connect people to mental health services and treatment programs. It is not a crisis hotline; instead, it should be called before behavioral health issues escalate into an emergency situation.
Delawareans looking for treatment referrals can call 888-427-2643 on weekdays from 9 am to 4 pm The HelpLine is also available in Spanish at 302-415-4356.
Other ways to get help:
Delaware Hope Line: 833-9-HOPEDE for free 24/7 counselling, coaching and support, as well as links to mental health, addiction and crisis services. Resources can also be found on the Help is Here website.
SAMHSA National Helpline: 800-662-HELP (4357) for free 24/7 substance abuse disorder treatment referral services. Treatment service locators are also available online at findtreatment.samhsa.gov or via text message by sending your ZIP code to 435748.
Delaware Domestic Violence Hotlines: 302-762-6110 for New Castle County or 302-422-8058 for Kent and Sussex Counties
National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-4673
National Child Abuse Hotline: 800-422-4453
Send story tips or ideas to Hannah Edelman at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more reporting, follow them on Twitter at @h_edelman.