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What You Should Know About Mental Health Hotlines

October 2020, Congress signed into law the new National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020 which created a new three-digit number, 988, for people to use when seeking help. While the free helpline will not operational until July 2022, it could be the first important step that people must take when dealing with a mental health crisis.

But, are mental health helplines effective? And, how exactly do they work?

A study of 139 callers by the Mental Health Foundation reported that the majority of respondents felt that the hotline helped them. They also felt that they helped them feel listened to in a safe space.

Specifically, 79% of callers were satisfied or somewhat satisfied with the helplines’ response, with 81% of respondents stating that the helpline staff understood or somewhat understood their concerns.

However, there were some callers who would have preferred to speak with someone who had more expertise or experience. Regardless, most callers reported that contacting the helpline empowered them to cope better. More importantly, they felt less anxious and alone. And, they also felt better informed and more in control.

“People who call the hotline need more than just help during a crisis, they need to be connected to a mental treatment that actually works for continued care," Jeffrey M. Cohen, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York told Verywell. “Dialectical Behavior Therapy is the most effective treatment for suicidality, but many people do not have access to it.”

When should you call a crisis or help hotline?

“There is no particular scenario that says, ‘Yes, you should call or no, you shouldn’t call,’” said Frances Gonzalez, senior marketing and communications director at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. “If you’re looking for any kind of support or have a concern about somebody else, or you just need somebody to talk to, if you’re thinking about calling, then call. That’s what the line is here for.”

Do you need insurance?

No. Most hotlines offer free counseling for anyone in distress -- regardless if you have insurance or not.

What kind of training do mental health counselors?

The person you speak to on the phone has been trained as a trained crisis counselor. As such, they can provide immediate help. However, different centers have counselors who have been trained in different areas.

“Because it’s a national network of local centers, we have centers that have counselors that all have master’s degrees or bachelor’s degrees,” says Gonzalez. “Other centers have people who are trained volunteers, or a mix of professional counselors and trained volunteers. All centers are certified and accredited to be part of the Lifeline network.”

What happens when you call?

Expect to be asked why you’re calling and what your situation is. Usually, counselors will then just listen and talk to you. They will also assess the immediacy of the call. If they believe that you are at risk of harming yourself or anyone else, they will attempt to de-escalate a situation as best as possible and direct you to an emergency room or urgent care facility.

If so, they may ask if you have transportation. If not, they will try to assist you. And, they can not call the authorities unless they have someone’s permission.

Additionally, if you don’t click with the counselor be honest with them. They will switch you to someone else.

How to prepare for the call.

Because people should only call in an urgent time of need, you probably don’t have much time to prepare. It is important though to remain as calm as possible so that the counselor can understand your current situation.

You can use basic coping skills, such as breathing exercises or journaling, to help relax a little before the call. You may also want to have a pen and paper nearby so that you can take write down your most pressing concerns, as well as the advice that’s been shared with you.

What a helpline can and can’t do?

Remember, helplines are the first step in seeking mental health help. Calling a helpline is often used to provide initial support during a crisis and suggestions on what to do next. For instance, they may offer community resources that you should access. More likely than not though, they will recommend that you seek more direct counseling either in-person or through teletherapy.

They may also have you fill out a personal safety plan that includes safety measures, coping skills, and you can contact to prevent yourself from self-harm.

Where to reach out for help.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, please contact the following resources for immediate help:

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