NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — More than six months after the number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline dropped from 10 digits to three, data shows more Tennesseans are reaching out for help.

According to the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (TDMHSAS), about 21,000 Tennesseans have made calls to the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline since its launch in July 2022.

That’s an increase of about 500 calls per month over the previous 10-digit National
Suicide Prevention Lifeline number. Tennesseans are also taking advantage of 988’s ability to text or chat, with nearly 10,000 messages sent to 988 in the last half of 2022.

“I feel like Tennessee is very much ahead of the 8 ball in a lot of ways. We have a very robust crisis system that has been around for decades,” said Jennifer Armstrong, director for the Office of Crisis Services and Suicide Prevention at TDMHSAS.

Each state made the transition to the new number in July after years of planning, preparation and expansion. In Tennessee, that included distributing about $2.8 million in federal funding to community-based crisis call centers to hire dozens of new staff.

Any Tennessean who calls 988 is routed to their local call center for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Much like 911 did for emergency services, the aim with 988 was to create an easier way for people to connect to the right treatment at the right time. 

“The intent of 988 is to really reduce stigma in reaching out for help. So, what we’ve tried to do in a really thoughtful way is market it as such,” Armstrong said. “We want Tennesseans to define their own crisis. You don’t have to be acutely suicidal to call 988.”

A large majority of callers — at about 43% — have been people who just want to talk to someone about what they’re going through, Armstrong said. About 30% have resulted in non-emergency mental health referrals.

“We do feel like that message is getting out there because a large majority are consultation, non-emergency mental health referrals,” she said. “We’re really excited to see that… it’s great news the word is slowly getting out there and it’s being used in the way it’s intended to.”

Since the launch of 988, only about 3% percent of calls have resulted in law enforcement
involvement. Armstrong said those are rare cases where there has been an emergency or imminent risk of harm to others.

Reduction in law enforcement involvement is another sign of success, and something Armstrong said mental health professionals are going to be “keeping a really close eye on.” Many times, when an individual is in a mental health crisis they instead turn to the ER or 911.

“Especially in communities where there’s not a lot of resources. They call 911 and law enforcement,” Armstrong said. “So, we look to compare data and data share across the country around things like reduction in law enforcement involvement.”

Even with the increased demand for assistance, Armstrong said Tennessee’s crisis call centers are meeting or exceeding national benchmarks for in-state answer rate and time to answer.

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The federal agency that funds the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline sets targets at 90% of calls answered in-state and 30 seconds to answer. Any call that’s not answered promptly in-state rolls over to a national backup call center so that no call goes unanswered.

“I’m happy to report we were at 90% as a state, which means that 90% of the people in Tennessee got a provider to provide them with services,” said Armstrong, who added that time to answer was about 20 seconds in Tennessee.

After the strong start in 2022, TDMHSAS is adding additional capacity in Nashville, Knoxville and
West Tennessee with $1 million in supplemental funding from the Substance Abuse and
Mental Health Services Administration and existing Mental Health Block Grant Funding.

The department previously expanded chat and text capabilities in September 2022 to meet demand during peak times.

“We are slowly starting to build out infrastructure in our state. We cover 95 counties already, which is wonderful news,” Armstrong said. “I believe at last month’s glace, about 99% of those texting are being answered, which is a great thing.”

Anyone who reaches out to 988 can remain completely anonymous. People can also access 988 services without sharing their location. For more information about 988 in Tennessee, click here.