A new national suicide prevention hotline is available for those experiencing a mental health emergency as state and federal health agencies seek to expand mental health services.
Similar to dialing 9-1-1 in an emergency, people can now dial 9-8-8 to be connected to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, where support is available to those experiencing mental health distress.
The 9-8-8 number does not replace any of the state’s pre-existing crisis center providers, and the current NSPL number, 800-273-8255, will remain active, the state Department of Health said in a press release.
“In the same way 9-1-1 transformed our ability to respond to emergency safety or health situations, 9-8-8 will transform our ability to connect people to help in behavioral and mental health crisis situations,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement.
The lifeline is available 24/7, DOH said, and can also be reached by text message. Family members concerned about a loved one’s mental health can also dial 9-8-8 for support services. The line is free and confidential.
Veterans and service members can reach the Veterans Crisis Line by pressing 1 after dialing 9-8-8, DOH said, and Spanish language services will soon be available.
According to data from DOH, Jefferson County had 61 suicides from 2016-2020 and Clallam County had 99 in the same time period, the majority of which were from firearms.
Both Clallam and Jefferson Counties have some of the highest rates of suicide in the state, according to DOH data.
From 2016-2020, Clallam and Jefferson counties had firearms-related suicide rates of 13.6 and 14.2 per 100,000 people, respectively.
Data from the Jefferson County Prosecutor’s Office shows seven suicides in 2022, all but one of which involved firearms.
According to the data, there were 147 suicides in Jefferson County between 2006-2022 — 110 of which were men. Roughly half of the incidents involved a firearm.
From 2018-2020, there were more than 10 suicides each year in Jefferson County, but only five in 2021.
The 9-8-8 number was set up as state and local governments attempt to handle a growing mental health crisis in the U.S. More than half of Americans will be diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in their lifetime, and one in five adults will experience a mental illness in a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
To Patrick Johnson, board president of the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) of Jefferson County, that means no one in the community is unaffected by mental illness.
Johnson said he hopes the prevention hotline becomes as prominent as 9-1-1 is for emergencies. State and local agencies often have their own suicide prevention hotlines, Johnson said, but many of those programs are not available 24 hours a day like the national hotline is.
“The most important thing is that it’s a simple number,” Johnson said. “(People in crisis) can readily access a trained person. We’re very excited about that.”
Johnson said Washington has been making improvements to mental health services and that the state Legislature has provided funding for programs in Jefferson County and elsewhere.
But while there’s an increased awareness of mental illness and more resources to deal with it, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the demand and stretched existing resources thin. NAMI is a private non-profit organization that provides mental health services nationwide, and while the Jefferson County affiliate is providing services, the Clallam County affiliate is no longer operating, Johnson said.
A lot of progress has been made in raising awareness about mental health, Johnson said, but many people still feel a stigma associated with talking about it or seeking help. That in itself can be one of the biggest impediments to mental health services, Johnson said.
“Stigma is such an impediment, and that has to do with the 9-8-8 number, that line is confidential,” Johnson said. “Everything that (NAMI does) is all confidential. We work very hard to protect a person’s confidentiality.”
Resources related to mental illness and the 9-8-8 hotline are available at 988lifeline.org.