How 988 Will Transform America’s Approach to Mental Health

America is on the verge of making a significant leap towards improved health care.

Beginning on July 16th, anyone in America, anywhere in America, can dial just three digits–988–to get free, confidential, and immediate help for a mental health emergency.

These two might seem like an odd couple, but they could be talking about mental health together.

One of us is a leading mental health advocate—an unexpected career, but one he discovered through a commitment to service that helped him heal from the trauma he experienced after his dad, the entertainer Robin Williams, died by suicide.

One is a Marine veteran, who became the U.S.’s first sitting U.S. Representative. The Congressman shared his struggles with post-traumatic stress as a result from several combat tours in Iraq and then wrote the legislation that created 988.

We come from different backgrounds, and our lives are very different. We both share deep personal experience with mental illness like many Americans.

Nearly half of all 60 million people with mental illnesses in America, including children and adults, are not receiving any treatment. Imagine what it would look like if all half of Americans with broken legs never received any treatment.

There are two basic reasons why so many Americans don’t address mental health: They are afraid or discouraged from getting help, or they simply don’t know how to get it.

We have two easy steps to take with the 988.

First, More people should share their stories.

One thing we’ve learned is that simply talking about mental health is the most important first step we can all take.

Research has shown that there is no way to talk about depression. This myth can be a big problem with mental health. Speaking with someone is significantly better for people who feel more relieved and hopeful.

It’s also well documented that the majority of people who do attempt suicide and survive, ultimately do not die by suicide at a later date. This means that they often regret ever trying. Think about what it would have been like if people were more fortunate and had dialed for help.

We’re sharing our stories to encourage you to share yours—talk about mental health with your friends and family, and help make taking care of it as routine as getting an annual physical.

You can find strength even in vulnerability. This is simply how it works: the more you talk about this the better.

Second: Help us ensure everyone knows 9-8-8.

Everyone already knows to call 911 if your house is on fire; you don’t need to Google the fire department in the middle of the night! Being able to dial a three-digit number when you’re experiencing a mental health emergency should become as natural as dialing 911.

It is estimated that 316 people will seriously think about suicide every time someone dies. That’s more than 13 million people who seriously consider taking their own lives, yet only about two million call the existing ten-digit National Suicide Hotline.

We need to make sure that everyone in America knows the importance of 9-8-8, and is available to help if needed. We need your help to spread the word over the next few months.

This will help you understand how everything works.

Once you call 988, you’ll be connected to the best resources available to address your specific needs. Veterans, for example, are about 1½ times more likely to die from suicide than nonveterans. Talking to veterans and people who are trained specifically to address their specific needs is a good idea.

It is important to know that all 988 calls are kept confidential. You must ask for permission before anyone comes to your house. The experience has proven that talking to trained professionals can save lives and thousands every year.

There’s one last thing to keep in mind as we launch this new service: There will inevitably be some hiccups, and we want your feedback on how to improve 988. Simply having the number active will save thousands of lives—every year in the U.S., more people die by suicide than in car accidents.

Calling 988 when someone is suffering from a crisis could save their lives. It might be possible to save more by discussing mental health issues over dinner. It is important for more Americans to recognize that having mental illnesses can be just as painful as breaking your leg. You need help. Let’s spread this important truth throughout the nation.

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