Mental health experts celebrate 988

Assistant Director of Student Health and Wellness/Mental Health Program and chair of The Santa Clarita Valley Suicide Prevention, Postvention and Wellness Committee, Larry Schallert, talks during a discussion among committee members from different agencies at College of the Canyons in Valencia in early 2018. Nikolas Samuels/The Signal

Amid rising suicide rates, local mental health experts are lauding the Saturday rollout of the 988 mental health crisis line, which replaces the previous 11-digit suicide hotline phone number. 

The old number is still available, even after the launch of 988, but the simplicity of the new number — and its resemblance to 911 —  is something mental health experts are hoping will save lives.  

“Nine-eight-eight is a game changer,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn said in a prepared statement. “Starting this weekend, anyone experiencing a mental health crisis or who has [a] loved one that is in trouble can dial this short, easy-to-remember number and get connected to help.” 

Larry Schallert, assistant director for the mental health program at College of the Canyons, reported in May that suicides had doubled from 2020 to 2021 in Santa Clarita. Shallert also warned they were on track to double again this year. Now, Shallert says 988 will hopefully prevent further tragedy.  

“Whenever you add accessibility to resources, it’s going to prevent suicide,” said Schallert. “It’s going to prevent things from getting worse. So my expectation is, it will definitely help locally, nationally, you know, [and] right here in Santa Clarita.” 

Schallert, his colleagues, county officials and other mental health experts have been pushing for the implementation of a simpler hotline number for quite some time, saying that asking people who are considering suicide to call a number 11 digits long — and have them remember it — has been tough. The suicide hotline number was posted almost everywhere where eyes could see it. Schallert even said they would give pizza out to students who put the number in their cell phones.  

“But now we know that all the providers are going to have access to this number,” said Schallert. “We’re going to be able to give it to everyone really fast, really easily. So my impression is everybody’s excited about it.” 

Calls to the hotline in L.A. County will handled by Didi Hirsch, a mental health and suicide prevention agency that’s been operating since 1942. Schallert said callers can expect to talk to experts trained in de-escalation and prevention measures. In addition to what can be done on the phone, the L.A. County Department of Mental Health said they’re also expanding mobile response teams in the event of a crisis. 

“In some cases, talking to a professional on the phone won’t be enough,” said Hahn. “That is why it is so important that we have teams of mental health professionals across the county who can drive out directly to a person in crisis, de-escalate situations, and connect people with long-term help. We need to expand these teams so that we have enough to respond to every mental health crisis across the county where they could be helpful and get there quickly so that it is a viable alternative to 911.” 

Schallert noted that since the number is easier to access, there may be a surge in calls but that he’s confident the resources available will be able to anticipate such a spike. Schallert, like Hahn, reiterated 988’s importance.  

“Whether it’s somebody that’s in crisis, or if it’s a family member, or friend, or you just know somebody, it’s really easy to remember 988,” said Schallert. “I think it’s gonna be a game changer in terms of access to service and probably saving lives.” 

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts or a crisis, call 988. 

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