Unprecedented calls, texts after Suicide Lifeline number changed to 988

Answered calls increased 50 percent, answered texts increased 1,000 percent

The National Suicide Lifeline's three-digit number had a call and text volume that spiked to unprecedented levels in just the first month after rolling out in July.

SAN ANTONIO – It seems like a small change, dropping the National Suicide Lifeline from a standard 10-digit number to three digits -- 988. However, the call and text volume spiked to unprecedented levels in just the first month after the new hotline rolled out in July.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the number of calls answered went up from 141,400 to 216,000, more than a 50% increase. The report showed texts answered went up by a stunning 1,000%. The number of chats on the lifeline’s website that were answered saw a 195% increase.

The numbers offer hope to people like Christian Bove, who lost his brother Hector to suicide in 2020, at the height of the pandemic.

“It came as a complete shock to all of us. I know you hear that a lot, but I mean, you looked at my brother and -- huge smile on his face. Successful professional, had a loving family around him, friends -- we just had no idea what he was going through mentally, internally, emotionally,” Bove said.

Bove and his family have found support through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) South Texas chapter.

The foundation has been working to make the National Suicide Lifeline a three-digit number for years.

“The suicide hotline has been around for four decades, but how many people actually have that number memorized? They’re not going to remember a super long number. When they’re in that crisis mode, they’re not going to take the time out to go and Google that number,” Bove said.

On July 16, the number for the lifeline became 988, and the reason for the push quickly became apparent.

The HHS report of the increased call, text and chat volumes stunned the nation.

“The projected volume for the next year or so, from July this year to next year, it’s projected to hit 7.6 million calls. It would be more than double of what the hotline saw last year,” said Julia Hewitt, AFSP South Texas chair.

Increased call volume means increased staffing and infrastructure updates. In other words, it means a need for more funding. A lot of that comes from donations.

“But it’s really also kind of up to the lawmakers to determine some of the support. For example, 911 is supported by a fee so that it operates and it operates locally. We’re advocating for the same for 988 at a state level,” Hewitt said.

There are 180 call centers nationwide for the suicide lifeline. Hewitt said the goal is to keep the calls as local as possible. However, if a local office cannot answer the call, it transfers to a national line, and the call is still answered.

Most of the people working for the centers are trained, volunteer counselors. A lot of the funding would go towards infrastructure.

“There’s that texting capability. So even just the proficiency and kind of keeping up with the technology that is going to become available,” Hewitt said.

“It means the world to me that this resource is available,” Bove said. “You know, hindsight’s 20/20. Who knows if something like this could have saved my brother’s life.”

Bove hopes Hector’s story will push people to have uncomfortable conversations, check on loved ones, or call or text 988 themselves.

“Check on your family members. Check on your friends. Check on those strong friends -- you know, the one that externally always has that smile, is the life of the party. That was my brother,” Bove said.

He wants to break the stigma surrounding mental health and reaching out for help.

“Suicide is such a taboo topic, and it’s trying to get rid of that stigma because it’s obviously an issue. It’s happening every day. People need to know it’s OK to talk about it,” Bove said.

He and his family are still grieving and trying to pull something positive from their situation.

“We’ve been fundraising in his name, and in the last two years, we’ve been able to raise about $15,000 for AFSP and another $40,000 for a scholarship in his name for Fiesta Youth,” Bove said.

Bove and his mother joined the Survivors of Loved Ones’ Suicides group in San Antonio and said the group is now a second family. He encourages anyone coping with the suicide of a loved one to reach out to the SOLOS group or the local AFSP chapter.

The chapter is hosting its large annual Out of the Darkness Walk on November 6.

To learn about more events, head to the AFSP South Texas website.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, call or text 988 or visit the National Suicide Lifeline website to chat with a counselor.

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Here’s what you need to know about 988, the new mental health crisis hotline


About the Authors:

Courtney Friedman is a KSAT anchor and reporter. She has an ongoing series called Loving in Fear, confronting Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She's also covered Hurricane Harvey, the shootings in Sutherland Springs and Santa Fe, and tornadoes throughout Texas. She’s a California native and proud Longhorn who loves calling SA home.

Misael started at KSAT-TV as a photojournalist in 1987.