How to Save a Life

A bullhorn promoting the number 988
Three of the most important numbers around.

*Note: This post will discuss suicide. If you're struggling, 9-8-8 is there for you 24/7 via phone, chat, text. You are not alone, my friend.

The federal government gets a lot of publicity, some well deserved, for bungling stuff. But when they get it right, there's little fanfare. Just as when the power's on, few people notice, let alone call their utility company to commend them on a job well done. So let's take a moment to discuss something good that quietly came out of Congress in October of 2020.

The headlines those days were about pandemic losses - the lives, the livelihoods, the ways we could be together. But Senator Cory Gardner from Colorado's rural sunshine was also attuned to another kind of loss. In his state, someone dies by suicide every seven hours, one of the highest rates in the country.

There was no easy number to call in despairing times. 911 didn't have trained mental health pros and plenty of callers didn't want or need the cops showing up on their doorstep.

There were some state hotlines, but understaffing could leave a vulnerable caller in a dangerous waiting period. There was the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, a well-intentioned 800 number that was neither memorable nor quick to dial.

What was needed was something as sticky in the mind as 911, but tailored to the unique contours of people in life's bleakest moments. So the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline was born through Senator Gardner's bipartisan National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020.

It's 100% free for callers, available all day, every day. It would grow to have chat and text; an option for LGBTQI+ callers to talk to an LGBTQI+ counselor; Spanish-speaking counselors; veterans services; you can also use it if you're worried about a beloved in crisis.

It's not perfect. And there's still more needed. More mental health services, yes. But also more wells people can refill their depleted selves in. More gentleness in daily life. More reminders that we belong to each other.

And while we work towards that horizon, 988 can help keep sad hearts beating, and believing in a softer moment on the other side of the hard one they're in. "It's no coincidence," Ted Chiang wrote, "that 'aspiration' means both hope and the act of breathing."

In July 2022, 988 went live. Seventeen months later, it had racked up about 8.1 million calls, chats, and texts. And the demand grew; in May 2024 alone, it had over 600,000 contacts.

And yet fewer than 1 in 4 folks even knows 988 exists. This when someone dies by suicide every 11 minutes. My eldest brother was one of them in 2021.

For all the problems that we cannot solve for, this awareness gap is one we can.

  • Add 988 to your email signature
  • Add 988 to your social media handles
  • Ask your workplace to publicize 988 (for bricks and mortar spaces, bathrooms and communal kitchens are great)
  • If you have a kiddo/s, ask their school to publicize 988 among not just students, but in the faculty lounge and among staffers
  • Tattoo 988 on your face (optional)

And in the time you've read that, you've probably come up with better ideas.

Here's a handy 988 toolkit with promo materials that you can search for content tailored to particular communities.

This publicity may catch someone in their dark hours. Or it may get 988 into their minds, where they can file it away should they or someone they know need it.

I used to hesitate about sharing 988 with friends in rough patches; would they be angry, ashamed, think I was an alarmist. Most terrifyingly, would it put the idea in their mind?

But the research shows the opposite: talking about suicide may reduce ideation about it. Or, as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (which I'm involved with) says, Talk saves lives.

So now I pour that number all over the place. "Just passing this along if of use," I say." Some friends have found it helpful." And I'd be just fine if folks roll their eyes: "There goes Caitie again with 988." No prob; it means they remember the number.

"The love of our neighbour," wrote philosopher and mystic Simone Weil, "in all its fullness simply means being able to say to [them]: “What are you going through?"

And when they are going through more than we can help them carry, we can love them by sharing the 988 lifeline.

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