Think Out Loud

988 number now connects directly to national suicide prevention line

By Rolando Hernandez (OPB)
Aug. 4, 2022 4:30 p.m. Updated: Aug. 11, 2022 9:32 p.m.

Broadcast: Thursday, Aug. 4

Suicide hotline sign on the Vista Bridge in Portland.

While the crisis hotline will remain active, the change to 988 makes it easier to remember and use when needed.

Michael Clapp / OPB


For anyone experiencing a mental health crisis, looking for addiction resources or just wanting to talk to someone on a bad day, there is a new number to call: 988. The three digit number has replaced the national number making it easier to remember and use when it’s needed. This change happened in mid-July, but the previous crisis hotline will remain active. The Portland-based nonprofit Lines for Life is handling 988 calls for the majority of Oregon. To explain more on the rollout of the change and what’s happening in the state we hear from Chief Clinical Officer of Lines for Life Greg Borders.

Note: The following transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. For anyone experiencing a mental health crisis, looking for addiction support resources or just wanting to talk to someone on a bad day, there is a new number to call: 988. This three digit number replaced the national 10 digit crisis hotline about two weeks ago. The hope is that it’ll be easier to remember and more likely to be used. The Portland based nonprofit Lines For Life is handling 988 calls for the majority of Oregon. For more on this change, we’re joined now by Greg Borders. He is the Chief Clinical Officer at Lines for Life. Welcome.

Greg Borders: Thanks for having me.

Miller: Besides having seven fewer digits, is this new 988 service different from what people would have accessed in the past if they had called the national suicide lifeline?

Borders: In some ways it’s the same. We’ve always had clinicians answering the lifeline, before 988 took off, and they’ve been trained to handle whatever callers are calling about. What’s different about it is a couple of things. One is that we are much better staffed to be able to handle the volume. We’ve definitely seen an increase in volume since we went live on July 16th and we, so we’ve really beefed up our staffing. We’ve got a lot of folks that are ready to take those calls. The other thing that’s different about it is we were funded to be able to provide text and chat 24/7. So whereas before we had very limited hours on people being able to reach out to us over text, now we’re 24/7. And in fact over the last 2 weeks we’ve had 380 texts and chats on the lifeline chat. Whereas the month before we only had 45, so definitely seen an increase and we’re excited about it.

Miller: I’m fascinated by the increase. You’re saying you saw, just in the last two weeks. How big has it been?

Borders: It’s been pretty significant. So on average, before July 16, we were getting about 83 phone calls a day. And now we’re seeing an average of about 128. So that’s a 47% increase just in the last two weeks. So definitely we’re seeing an increase. People are reaching out, they’re hearing about 988, they’re calling and we’re there ready to take those calls.

Miller: What do you ascribe that increase to? I mean there are two things that come to mind. One is that it’s only three digits. The other is that there has been a fair amount of press in the last two weeks because of this rollout, but it’s also very likely I’m missing things. How do you explain it?

Borders: I think you’re right about those two things that you’ve described. I think the number is just so easy to remember. It was just such a brilliant design that it would be so similar to 911 because a three digit number, like 911 is for a medical emergency or a police emergency and 988 is for behavioral health emergency. I want to be clear, like you don’t have to be in crisis to call 988. If you’re struggling, if you’re feeling depressed, or if you have a loved one or you know someone that needs some help figuring out resources, to call that number. So I think that the simplicity of the three digit number has definitely made it so much easier for folks to remember how to call us. Like you said, there’s been a lot more marketing about it, a lot of conversations around it. And I think that we’re seeing that there’s, we’re working hard to de-stigmatize reaching out for help and that it’s okay, it’s healthy to actually reach out and call somebody. And so, I think those are the factors that are really causing the increase. We’re also seeing some people that are just calling in and saying, “Hey, what’s this number about? Just heard about it.” And that’s great. We want people to be informed, want the public to know what it’s there for. And people are also calling in about loved ones that are struggling and I just learned about this number. Is this something that might be helpful for, for my loved one, whether it’s a mental health thing or people calling about looking for addiction resources and all those are great reasons to be calling us.

Miller: This is a national initiative. But if Oregonians call this number, are they talking to people in Oregon?


Borders: Yes. So they are primarily talking to people in Oregon. So the way that the network works is that if you call or text from 503, 971, any of the Oregon prefix numbers, you’re going to reach the Oregon center. So we’re based here in Portland, Oregon. We do have some call counselors that are not in Oregon. With the new remote world that we live in, we’ve been able to hire some folks that are living in other states, but we’re based in Oregon. We’re very familiar with Oregon resources. We answer lines on other crisis lines that are Oregon based, like the Drug and Alcohol Helpline, Military Help Lines. Those are all Oregon centric. And so we really know the resources for Oregon. So if you call in from an Oregon number, you’re going to get somebody that’s going to know what’s going on in Oregon and know how to find resources and help for you.

Miller: Plenty of people who live here now, kept their cell phone numbers from other places, from anywhere in the country. If they call from Portland, but with a Texas phone number, are they reaching a different place?

Borders: As of right now they’re reaching a different place. We’re hoping to be able to fix that at some point, but right now, you’re going to reach Texas if you’re calling from Portland and you’ve got a Texas phone number. But the thing I would say about that is that the internet has really allowed us to be able to find resources that are all over the country. So even if you call and you reach a Texas operator, we’ve gotten pretty good at figuring out how to figure out, okay, you’re in LaGrande Oregon, let’s see what resources are available for you there and and we’re all trained to be able to connect with callers no matter where they’re calling from. So, and that’s really the most important thing about 988, is it’s this opportunity for you to call in and talk to a caring, compassionate counselor, who’s gonna help you talk through what’s going on and will help you come up with a plan to get what you’re looking for.

Miller: I have read that this service that you’ve been talking about is available in both English and Spanish. What options are there for people who don’t speak either of those languages?

Borders: We use a translator service. So if you call from any language and so far all the languages that people have called in, we’ve been able to find a translator for, so we would, we would connect over the phone with another translator and we would, we would say to the translator, this is what the, the person calling would speak to the translator. They would translate it to us. It’s pretty seamless. I mean ideally we would be able to communicate in the native language that the person is calling with. But we’ve found that we’ve been able to do definitely good enough.

Miller: Will there be specific services, if people call 988, will there be specific services for adolescents or other young people?

Borders: Yeah, so are our counselors trained to be able to talk with youth that call in. One of the great things about Lines For Life is we actually run a youth line which is a 24/7 line for youth. So all our counselors are trained to be able to take calls on the youth line as well as 988. So those skills really transfer back and forth. So if a 12 year old calls the 988, we are definitely trained, prepared, and ready. We know the resources. We encourage you to call 988 or the youth line, whichever they feel more comfortable doing.

Miller: If you’re just tuning in, we’re talking right now about the new mental health crisis line. The national roll out of this, it’s just about two weeks old right now. It’s three digits, 988. Greg Borders is with us. He is the Chief Clinical Officer at Lines for Life which is handling 988 calls for most of the state of Oregon. Greg Borders, one of the issues, especially that has been talked about a lot on social media over the last few weeks, is concerns that when people call this number, first responders or police could be sent to help them. Can you give us a sense for how often that happens?

Borders: Yeah, I’m glad you’re asking that because definitely people are asking a lot of questions around that and I think that, it’s, there’s a lot of, I’ve seen a lot of statistics that just aren’t accurate. So we did some research on this because I was hoping you’d ask about this question and we when we look back at how often we actually refer to emergency services, it’s 2% of calls, 2% of total calls and more than 50% of that 2% are calls where we’ve been able to work with the caller to, they’re in agreement that we need to call emergency services. So really, it’s less than 1% of all of our calls where we call emergency services and the caller doesn’t want us to. Now the way that we train our clinicians is that we really take as much time as we need with callers. So we’re not quick to call 911. We know that calling 911, in almost every case, is really not the ideal outcome for the caller or for 911 for that matter. And so we take as much time with the caller to really kind of, if they say I have a weapon, we’re not we’re not immediately saying, oh gosh, we better hurry up and call emergency services. Instead we’re saying, okay, let’s talk about the weapon, let’s talk about, is there a place that you can set that down, just while we talk, is there somebody that could hold on to that weapon while we have this conversation? And if we’re able to de- escalate and we feel that the person is not an imminent risk and imminent really is the key word there, then we absolutely do not want to call emergency services. We want to talk with that person about getting resources and finding people that might be able to help them, in the moment, to come up with a plan that works well for them. If somebody is in process of a suicide attempt, then we’re going to be more likely to reach out and get emergency services involved. That’s, it’s very rare that that happens.

Miller: I want to remind folks, the number to call, this is both the subject of this conversation, but it could be useful for people at any time, including now, that this new service for people who are in the middle of mental health crises, it’s 988. Greg Borders, the hotline in and of itself is not enough. There has to be a meaningful system in place to provide ongoing help for people who need it or places to refer people when, when they are calling and saying, I need help. How much of that broader system is in place right now and how much needs to be built out?

Borders: There’s no doubt that we need more mental health services and we need more addiction treatment, we need more addiction treatment beds, we need quicker access to addiction treatment beds. Same with mental health. So it’s definitely something that I know that the state of Oregon is working really hard to figure out because they know that 988, really is just the front door and if there’s nowhere to refer people to, then that doesn’t really fix the problem and people are going to be stuck in a loop of just being able to call 988. That said, there really are a lot of resources out there available. It’s about, it’s a matter of knowing where those resources are and what they are and that’s what’s great about calling 988, our clinicians, they’re on the pulse of what’s happening in every county in the state of Oregon and they’re ready to, if there’s a resource, we’re gonna know about it, we update our resources all the time, so they’re accurate and we’re not gonna send somebody somewhere that’s been closed for a while, so there’s there’s definitely room for improvement, but there is a lot that’s available and we’re ready to hook you up.

Miller: Greg Borders, thanks very much for joining us.

Borders: Thanks for having me.

Miller: Greg Borders is the Chief Clinical Officer at Lines For Life. They’re the Oregon based nonprofit that’s handling the majority of new 988 calls for the state of Oregon.

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