WISCONSIN — The national 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline initiative that launched Saturday is an important addition to combating a devastating public health problem.

What You Need To Know

  • On July 16, the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline launched nationwide

  • The calling code of 988 will allow people of all ages who are experiencing a crisis — thoughts of suicide, a mental health concern or substance use issue, or any other emotional distress — to get help for themselves or a loved one by connecting them with a trained crisis counselor.

  • The HOPELINE, a text service with a network of 2,600 trained counselors across the state of Wisconsin, will continue to help those in crisis, as it has since 2014.
  • To access HOPELINEput the number 741741 in the “To” section. Then type in the word “HOPELINE” in the message area. Then click Send.

But it doesn’t mean other avenues that help combat mental illness are going away. 

“As far as HOPELINE is concerned, HOPELINE is going to continue to stay strong,’’ said Barb Bigalke, founder of the Center for Suicide Awareness in Kaukauna and creator of the HOPELINE text initiative in 2014.

“I think 988, itself, it’s a good concept,’’ she said. “That it truly is designated for somebody that is suicidal. And that is really sort of taking a resource and dedicating it to the suicide prevention portion of things.”

“And I think you’ll also start to more people utilizing the HOPELINE because of the emotional support days, which is what I designed it for.’’

According to the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention’s 2020 statistics, suicide was the 12th leading cause of death in the U.S. There were 1.2 million suicide attempts in 2020 and 45,979 deaths.

“Talking about mental and behavioral health is an important part of reducing stigma and making sure folks know they can get the support they need when they need it,’’ Gov. Tony Evers said in a release. “In our state, nobody carries their worries alone, and it’s important for Wisconsinites to know that help and hope are only a phone call away. The nationwide transition to 988, an easy-to-remember 3-digit number, will provide greater access to counseling services across our state and country and will undoubtedly save lives.”

While HOPELINE and its 2,600 trained responders across the state have dealt with people who are suicidal, Bigalke said those texts comprised less than 2% of the ones they received. A large part of its mission is to prevent people from reaching a suicidal state of mind.

“If anything, we need to get more awareness on to the HOPELINE,’’ said Bigalke. “Because 988, you’re suicidal. Where the HOPELINE is for those bad days, the breakup, the loss of jobs, the anxiety day, the panic attack day; not necessarily thinking about suicide, but you’re struggling.

“And there’s a big difference between those two. 988 is really dedicated to, ‘I’m thinking of killing myself.’ HOPELINE, of course, if somebody is in that critical spot, we will do the intervention, but HOPELINE is that emotional support of saying, ‘Somebody’s there and they care.’ And I think it’s even more important; people go, ‘Oh, wait, I’m not thinking of killing myself. Did all the resources go away?’ No. HOPELINE is there.’’

As with most new programs, Bigalke knows it will take time for people to understand the resources that are still available.

“We’re all sort of just figuring this out,” said Bigalke, who said she was part of the 988 discussions. “I think it’s still going to be working out the creases. It’s gonna be a learning curve, like anything.

“But people are struggling. And we still have that stigma of, ‘Oh, do I ask for help? People might perceive me as weak.’ We have to break that, first and foremost. But we have to bring these numbers down. But as I always say, these are not numbers, these are people. They have names, they have families and they have loved ones. And so the more resources we can dedicate to this epidemic, the more we can bring those numbers down.”


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