Editorial: A new, easier way to seek help — dialing 988

In the United States, one person dies by suicide every 11 minutes, on average. The number of people who contemplate taking their own lives or try to do so is even higher — an estimated 1.2 million attempted suicides in a given year.

It’s no surprise the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies suicide as a serious public health problem. In 2020, about 46,000 people died by suicide. It’s the second leading cause of death for people ages 10-14 and 25-34, according to the CDC.

The list of mental health challenges that can ultimately lead a person down a path toward suicide is long: substance abuse, economic worries, sexual identity, eating disorders, depression, troubled relationships, physical illness and more.

Just this month, an invaluable tool became much easier to access for anyone in the country facing a mental health challenge. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a vast network of mental health professionals at the ready 24/7 to assist people in need, officially became available by dialing 988, instead of the old 10-digit number. The idea was to create an access number that would be as easy to remember as the 911 emergency number that even children now know by heart.

The number also receives text messages, which could be a critical improvement for younger people more accustomed to that form of communication.

The 988 line can also be used by people who are worried about a loved one who may need crisis support.

A media release announcing the launch of the 988 access code called it “an important step toward strengthening and transforming crisis care in this country. It serves as a universal entry point so that no matter where you live, you can reach a trained crisis counselor who can help.”

The number also provides specific support for veterans, who can dial 1 after calling 988 to be connected to the Veterans Crisis Lifeline, which serves all members of the nation’s armed forces and those who support them. The Veterans Crisis Lifeline is also available via text message at 838255.

There are risk factors and warning signs that people should know to look for to determine if a loved one is at risk for suicide, particularly if the behavior is new, the Lifeline says. Warning signs can include expressing feelings of hopelessness or being trapped in unbearable pain, increased use of alcohol or drugs, extreme mood swings and withdrawal or self-isolation.

Other valuable resources are available closer to home to assist people struggling with mental health issues. The Town’s licensed social worker, Lucille Buergers, can help with guidance to get assistance quickly. She can be contacted at 631-749-8807, [email protected]

And Quannacut, part of the Stony Brook Medicine network, also provides critical behavioral health services at Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport and an outpatient facility in Riverhead.

Access to mental health services is more important than ever. Now, the first step toward getting that care requires just three numbers — 988.