On Saturday, July 16, 2022, the United States’ new 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline went live across the country. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), “the lifeline, which also links to the Veterans Crisis Line, follows a three-year joint effort by the [HHS], Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to put crisis care more in reach for people in need.”
The past few years have shined new light on mental health struggles. While once considered a stigma, it is now more relevant than ever to be open about our difficulties regarding mental health. For parents who have children who are experiencing mental health related struggles—or who struggle themselves—this new hotline could prove to be a game-changer.
Dr. Suzanne Rybczynski, Associate Chief Medical Officer and Pediatrician at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, answers some of our questions about the new lifeline and offers warning signs of distress in children that parents should be on the lookout for.
How is the new 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline set up?
The hotline is set up for anyone to call, text, or chat online if they or a loved one is suffering from suicidal thoughts or other mental health struggles. Trained counselors are available in both English and Spanish. The new 988 lifeline replaces the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline which has been in place since 2005; however, callers can still access help from the original number. This easy three-digit number can be used anywhere in the U.S. and is meant to provide quick help to those experiencing mental health struggles. The lifeline uses geolocation to ensure that if emergency services are needed, they can deploy quickly to the right location.
How can the new 988 lifeline help parents?
The new 988 lifeline can be used as a great resource for new parents or seasoned parents who are struggling with their own mental health. For new moms experiencing postpartum depression or any parent suffering from depression or suicidal thoughts who find themselves in a challenging moment, a call to the 988 lifeline may offer comfort and support in a time of crisis.
“Having an easy-to-remember number, like 911 for other emergencies, offers an easy way to access help quickly” said Dr. Rybczynski. “Phone call, text, or chat options allow for people to communicate in the most comfortable way possible.”
Since more people—including young people—than ever are struggling with mental health difficulties, a quick and easy access number can mean receiving quick help in a time of crisis. A number like this also recognizes this resource is something the United States desperately needs.
What are warnings of distress in children that parents should look for?
Parents should be concerned if their children have significant changes in behavior including extreme irritability, loss of interest in things that use that used to make them happy or were fun for them, isolation from friends and family, or changes in sleep or appetite pattern.
Dr. Rybczynski said the most concerning sign to look for in a child is talk of death or a preoccupation with death. “If a child is talking about wanting to die or that their family would be better off if they were dead, parents need to take that very seriously. They should directly ask their children if they are thinking about suicide or killing themselves. Most children will appreciate the direct conversation and will often feel relieved that their parents care about them and want to help. They will feel validated and understood. This is the first step to getting kids the help they need.”
If a child is talking about wanting to die or that their family would be better off if they were dead, parents need to take that very seriously. They should directly ask their children if they are thinking about suicide or killing themselves…parents [should] not worry about ‘putting thoughts into kids’ heads’ if they ask about suicidal thoughts.
“It’s important that parents not worry about ‘putting thoughts into kids’ heads’ if they ask about suicidal thoughts,” said Dr. Rybczynski. “These questions need to be asked, no matter how painful the response. Kids don’t want to disappoint their parents. They want support, and this is how that support can start. Parents and kids can utilize 988 in situations like this.”
Suicide is the second leading cause of death in people aged 10-34; however, it is important to realize that even people who attempt—but don’t complete—suicide can have devastating injuries that impact not only them but their families for the rest of their lives, said Dr. Rybczynski. Parents should not think their child is “just being dramatic” if they talk about suicide. Take them seriously and get help. Calling 988 is a great place to start.
How can a parent’s mental health affect their child’s mental health?
Children are like sponges, and they are quick to pick up on the stressors that their family is facing which can, in turn, impact their mental health. Dr. Rybczynski said, for example, if a parent is suffering from the loss of a job or is worried about a sick loved one, kids pick up on it.
“This can happen even if the parent is trying to protect their kids from the stress. A vulnerable child may be more susceptible to stress. Family stress, even not directly involving the kid, may trigger a crisis in that child. It is important for parents to understand this,” Dr. Rybczynski said.
How can parents help their child’s emotional health?
The best thing for parents to do is to establish open lines of communication with their kids before a crisis, explained Dr. Rybczynski. “Talking to kids about their feelings and what is going on in their lives can make difficult conversations a bit easier. Remaining non-judgmental but still direct will encourage kids to share their feelings, even those about suicide.”
What mental health resources can parents use for their children, besides 988?
Parents should always reach out to their child’s pediatrician for mental health resources. The physician can help direct them to the most appropriate care that the child needs. If a child is acutely suicidal, they would be directed to emergency care.
Dr. Rybczynski says a great online resource for suicide prevention is an article on the American Academy of Pediatrics website called “12 Things Parents Can Do to Help Prevent Suicide.” It gives practical parenting tips to address a very difficult topic.