National mental health 988 crisis hotline sees boost in calls from Tennessee

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Sarah Balentine talks to a client at the 988 call center on Sept. 30. The national hotlline has received more than 20,000 calls from Tennessee since its implementation in July.
Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Sarah Balentine talks to a client at the 988 call center on Sept. 30. The national hotlline has received more than 20,000 calls from Tennessee since its implementation in July.

The three-digit, national Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, 988, has received roughly 21,000 calls from Tennessee in the six months since launching, according to state data.

The 988 number went live July 16 to serve as a universal entry point for people in mental health crises to reach a trained crisis counselor 24/7 -- similar to how 911 functions for emergency services.

Calls to 988 are routed to a call center where counselors determine what level of care is needed for a range of issues, including thoughts of suicide, mental health or substance use crisis and other types of emotional distress.

All 988 services are also open to friends and family members who need crisis support or help finding resources for a loved one. Those who access 988 services can do so without sharing their location and remain anonymous.

(READ MORE: New 988 hotline provides immediate help for mental health crises)

Although 10-digit crisis lines already existed, a Wednesday news release from the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services said calls from the state to 988 increased by about 500 per month compared to the previous 10-digit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number.

Of those from Tennessee who reached out, 42% just wanted to talk to someone about their situation, according to the release. The bulk of the calls resulted in nonemergency mental health referrals (30%), nonmental health community referrals (11%) or care coordination (10%).

"For the remainder, small percentages receive either a face-to-face mobile crisis evaluation (4%) or a referral to a hospital emergency department for medical treatment (2%)," the release states, noting about 3% of calls from Tennessee have prompted law enforcement intervention.

Volunteer Behavioral Health contracts with the state to cover 988 services for 29 counties, including those in the Chattanooga region.

Angie Duncan, the crisis call center coordinator for Volunteer Behavioral Health, said since 988 calls started coming in July, 988 call volumes for the region have increased by about 200 or more per month.

"Now we're up to like almost 800 (calls) a month just to 988," she said via phone Wednesday.

As of November, Volunteer Behavioral Health has answered 221 calls from Hamilton County alone.

(READ MORE: Mental health crisis among children is a national emergency, experts say. Here's where to get help in Chattanooga)

"Primary requests from callers seem to be those needing to talk to someone due to depression or recent traumatic experiences and not knowing how to get started with the process of how to get the help that they need," Duncan said via email. "We have also been getting more and more calls from family members who are very concerned about their loved ones and want to know what to do and what direction to go to get them help."

In addition to calling, people can text 988 or chat online through 988lifeline.org. In the second half of 2022, there were nearly 10,000 texts and chats to the 988 services from people in Tennessee, according to the news release.

"It's never been easier to connect with mental health care in a crisis thanks to 988," said Marie Williams, Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services commissioner, in the release. "Our state has an amazing network of crisis services and community mental health providers, and 988 is unlocking the door to mental health help that so many people need right now."

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.