As a crisis helpline grows, there are also fears it may not be ready

“There are thousands of users – many of whom may be in a suicidal crisis – who seek help and are unable to get the life-saving help they deserve,” the report said.

An estimated 4% of Lifeline callers are at imminent risk or actively attempting suicide, according to another recent government report, while 23% have had suicidal thoughts within 24 hours of call. Many are repeat callers – and, according to data, call centers can resolve around 80% of crises without further intervention, such as dispatching the police.

When the Lifeline can resume — when it’s working as intended — it’s effective, the researchers say, because it gives people someone to talk to in their darkest times. “It can make the difference between someone living and not living,” said Madelyn Gould, a psychiatric epidemiologist at Columbia University.

His rating matches comments many callers have shared on social media. One said an adviser told him “about the ledge”. Another wrote: ‘This line has saved my life many times including tonight.

A few years after the introduction of 988, the Lifeline is expected to attract tens of millions of people seeking help, according to estimates. These projections lead mental health advocates as they lobby state lawmakers to approve funding.

“Our concern is really whether there will be someone to answer that call when someone is in crisis,” said Hannah Wesolowski, advocacy manager for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

In December, the Biden administration authorized a one-time $282 million infusion to upgrade infrastructure and strengthen call centers, bringing significantly more online. Lifeline’s central operations have historically been underwritten annually by the federal government, most recently receiving $24 million in 2021. Each of the call centers, which can cost staff millions of dollars a year, receives an annual federal allowance from $2,500 to $5,000, plus an occasional larger grant, but they are mostly fundraisers on their own.

Edward K. Thompson