The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

988 line increases helpline usage for local mental health crisis services

The shorter, easier-to-remember three-digit number most likely led to local organizations seeing increased calls and texts, according to local crisis service officials.
Photo+Illustration
Sahithi Shankaiahgari
Photo Illustration

Local mental health crisis organizations have reported a significant uptick in the use of their services in the year and a half since the National Suicide Prevention Line rebranded to its three-digit 988 crisis line.

The hotline used to be a traditional 10-digit phone number for anyone in the U.S. to call when they require mental health support, but in July 2022, the line changed to three digits.

CommUnity Crisis Services, a mental health support organization in Iowa City, has seen a 160 percent increase in its texting service and a 20 percent increase in its phone call service since the 988 number launched, Kyle Burke, a crisis helpline program manager for the organization, said.

Burke said while the unprecedented increase has taken extra flexibility and dedication from CommUnity Crisis Services’ staff, it is great to see more people getting the support they need.

“I refer to 988, as it currently stands, as a dream come true,” Burke said. “Like a system that is finally coming to fruition that people have dreamed up for decades.”

It is not possible to narrow down the exact city of each text or call to the line because of the anonymous nature of the service, Burke said. However, it is possible to tell when a call is coming from a specific county. It is estimated around one out of 20 calls made to the 988 number in the state came from Johnson County, he said.

Cedar Rapids-based Foundation 2 Crisis Services, an organization similar to CommUnity, also reported an increase in line usage since July 2022.

Unlike CommUnity, however, the organization acts as the primary call center for the state. When a call to 988 in Iowa is made, it first goes to Foundation 2 Crisis Services and then gets rerouted to the appropriate local crisis service center, such as CommUnity Crisis Services.

India Hawkins, a crisis center program manager for Foundation 2 Crisis Services, said the organization has received 500 more calls per month than usual between July 2022 and December 2023. In the first year of the line’s launch, the organization received 16,000 calls, she said.

The rebrand of the line has made accessing mental health resources more accessible, which has most likely led to the increase in calls, Hawkins said.

“It’s just easier for people to remember and pass that on to friends or families or somebody in passing,” Hawkins said. “I think that the word is a lot easier to spread when it’s three letters.”

The shorter number has also made the line a bit easier to advertise to the public. In November 2022, the Iowa City Police Department added a 988 decal to its squad cars.

The University of Iowa has also implemented signs displaying the 988 number in high-risk locations — such as bridges and the tops of buildings — as well as on various UI websites, Tianyi Xie, the UI’s University Counseling Service interim outreach director, wrote in an email.

The UI Campus Safety and Suicide Prevention Coalition is also working to put 911 and 988 decals on the UI’s Police Department vehicles to spread the word about the crisis number, Xie wrote.

Xie wrote that the crisis line can be especially useful for college students because it is free to use, available 24/7, and connects callers with local crisis services so they can receive immediate help if needed.

RELATED: Iowa City mental health services added to GuideLink Center

Hawkins and Burke both said a new development in the works for statewide mental health support is a collaboration between 911 and 988 dispatchers.

This collaboration, which is being piloted in some communities in Iowa, would allow 911 dispatchers to reroute a call to the 988 number for a caller who needs mental health crisis support rather than immediate emergency or medical services, Hawkins said.

“It’s exciting to see not only certain dispatchers and counties come to us but also the state to be like, ‘Let’s make sure that people who need mental health support are getting a trained crisis counselor’ when they may not need law enforcement or emergency medical assistance right now,” Burke said.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 549 deaths from suicide in Iowa in 2021. Suicide was the eighth-highest cause of death in the state in 2020 according to a 2022 report from the Iowa Department of Public Health.

More to Discover
About the Contributor
Isabelle Foland, News Editor
(she/her)
Isabelle Foland is a second-year student at the University of Iowa majoring in Journalism and Mass Communication and minoring in Spanish. She is a second-year news reporter at The Daily Iowan, reporting mainly on Iowa City City Council. She is from Missouri Valley, Iowa and has reported for her hometown paper prior to her time at The DI.