This article discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline available 24/7. To reach the 24/7 Crisis Text Helpline, text 4HOPE to 741741.

COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – The phone lines at Ohio’s suicide prevention centers are ringing more frequently since the 988 hotline made its debut.

Mental health counselors at Ohio’s 19 call centers witnessed about a 40% jump in calls in the weeks after the state’s adoption of the three-digit Suicide & Prevention Crisis Lifeline in July, according to national data. Pleased with 988’s progress, prevention advocates want to hammer down long-term funding.

“We’re very happy with the way that 988 has launched in Ohio,” hotline administrator Doug Jackson said. “When the telephones began to ring, that there was somebody who was compassionate and caring to listen and provide the support that was needed.”

Why did Ohio adopt 988?

On July 16, Ohio moved from a 10-digit National Suicide Prevention Hotline to 988 to align itself with a federal mandate.

“This is just going to be eventually as ubiquitous as 911,” Stacey Frohnapfel-Hasson, bureau chief of the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (ODMHAS), told NBC4 in July.

The move to 988 was not only designed to save time for Ohioans in crisis, Jackson said. Amid rising drug overdoses and deaths by suicide, the 988 number could prevent law enforcement from deploying time and resources on 911 calls that could be more effectively handled by licensed counselors.

About 80% of callers have crises that can be handled, at least temporarily, over the phone, national data suggests.

“The reduction of a police response if the police are not needed is an intended outcome of 988,” Jackson said. “We are already seeing that being achieved, as well as the reduction and trips to an unnecessary place like an emergency room or a jail when, really, the call itself can resolve the problem that’s there.”

Calls received, answered in Ohio jump after 988’s launch

When someone dials 988, most calls are answered by a call center in Ohio. Some are re-routed to a backup provider and other calls are abandoned, meaning the caller hung up before connecting with a counselor or a glitch occurred.

During July, the first month of 988, Ohio answered 6,725 calls, or 86% of total in-state calls, according to national data. In June, Ohio answered 4,718 calls, or 77% of the in-state total.

That’s a 42% call volume increase and a 10% boost to its in-state answer rate from June, which ODMHAS Director Lori Criss attributed to the addition of seven call centers over the past 18 months and the ease of dialing 988.

“We really believe that this is because the number is more easily memorable and accessible,” Criss said. “And so people feel like they have a place that they can call to get help and get that emotional support.”

An operator’s speed in picking up the phone is key, Jackson said, as it could mean the difference between life and death. 

Ohio Lifeline operators took an average of 21 seconds to answer a call in August, compared with the nationwide 42-second average response time. Conversations between an Ohio caller and an operator lasted, on average, about 10 1/2 minutes.

“When they actually press 988 to make that call happen, we want to make sure that there’s not time for them to reconsider or abandon the call or hang up on the call,” Jackson said. “We want them to get help as quickly as possible.”

The number of Americans opting to reach 988 via text surged by more than 650% from August 2021 to August 2022, a sign that the service appeals to younger generations, too, Criss said.

The cost of saving a life

The American Rescue Plan equipped Ohio with $20 million to keep the 988 system running until June. Beyond that, it’s unclear where the money will come from, Criss said, whose office is working with lawmakers to secure a sustainable funding source.

Some prevention advocates have called for a 50-cent monthly tax on Ohioans’ phone bills in order to fund 988, which is estimated to cost the state $113 million from 2024 to 2027, according to ODMHAS’s 988 implementation plan. 

For Summerlee Godbolt, 42, of Canal Winchester, the 50-cent tax proposal is a no-brainer. 

Having access to a life-changing crisis hotline like 988 – especially in a family tightlipped about mental health – could have prevented her two suicide attempts, the first at age 12 and later at age 20.

“If we look at again, the numbers, it justifies that tax,” she said. “What amount of money can you put on saving a life?”