Suicidal thoughts? Think 988

New prevention hotline opens July 16 in region

Talking about suicide isn’t easy.

More than 12 million Americans have suicidal thoughts every year, according to recent statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and suicide is now the second-leading cause of death for Ohioans between the ages of 10 and 34, according to the Ohio Department of Health.

In 2021, the national Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) ranked suicide prevention services as one of its top four priorities.

Critical concern isn’t new, however.

A major SAMHSA initiative beginning in 2005 funded a National Suicide Prevention Lifeline administered by Vibrant Emotional Health. A long advocacy effort between then and now is finally ramping up to provide a 988 three-digit number for people in suicide crisis. Trumbull, Mahoning, Columbiana and Ashtabula counties will be served by Help Network of Northeast Ohio’s Crisis Hotline.


Beginning July 16, Help Network will join the roster of hundreds of call centers providing 988 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline services across the country. The benefits of participating in the national program include additional administrative and funding resources and cutting-edge information and training about suicide prevention strategies. Most importantly for the public, there will be an automatic call rollover to the next available call center when one is overburdened so callers are answered more quickly.

In preparation for an estimated 50 percent increase in caller demand, Help Network has been working to install new and improved communication technology and to recruit and train more phone workers.

But agencies need all the support they can get. SAMHSA’s recent update on the 988 expansion urges local communities to “shore up the infrastructure of the Lifeline and support the local crisis centers.”

The answer to the suicide problem isn’t simple. Children and adults who have found themselves in suicide crises tell personal stories of overwhelmingly painful life experiences ranging from bullying at school to trauma from domestic violence or abuse, to addiction or the symptoms and stigma of mental illness.

But issues at the heart of suicidal thinking also include grief from loss of a spouse, financial strain, profound loneliness, lacking a job or activity that provides a sense of purpose in life, and hopelessness related to a lack of opportunities, according to local mental health officials.


Every new major social service program has developmental growing pains, and the national 988 initiative is no exception.

One of the issues the National Suicide Prevention Line program is grappling with now is the question of anonymity.

Advocates for the use of call tracing on phone lines to identify and send immediate intervention to callers in imminent danger say that if they can prevent a death with a police officer “well check” or mobile crisis team visit, the loss of individual confidentiality and anonymity is a small price to pay.

Mandated reporters such as teachers, counselors, doctors and case workers are required to notify an appropriate social service board immediately when a child or vulnerable adult they’re helping is in danger of hurting themselves or someone else. The rationale for using call tracing to prevent suicide follows the same logic.

Katie Cretella, director of clinical services at the Trumbull County Mental Health and Recovery Board, explained: “It is imperative that we make every attempt to reach someone who is at risk of harming themselves and therefore, it is not only appropriate, but necessary, that confidentiality is broken.”

A growing number of consumer and suicide attempt survivor groups have argued, however, that the kinds of intervention that follow call tracing are not always helpful.

“When someone’s in pain and they need someone they can talk to, but then they send the police to my house — well, that’s just not going to make me ever want to call again,” explained one consumer who asked to remain anonymous. “I can’t get help unless I say I’m suicidal, but then they want to put me in the hospital. I didn’t need that kind of ‘help.’ I just needed someone to talk to because my life got overwhelming, and I needed to just calm down.”

The balance of risk and confidentiality is difficult, but a lack of intermediate levels of support forces ineffective and frustrating processes for everyone involved, officials said.


Cathy Grizinski, Help Network’s associate director, said: “We help people make safety plans, and to strengthen protective factors that make invasive or involuntary intervention unnecessary. We don’t want people to have to go to the hospital or have first responders show up at their front doors when there are many other possible solutions.”

Protective factors are skills, relationships or circumstances that make suicide far less likely. Some examples include having supportive family members to check in with, a person’s own sense of responsibility for others or to an important job, remembering and using effective coping skills learned in past times of hardship, a practice of faith, or even a close connection to one’s pets. Grizinski’s experience demonstrates that skilled and compassionate conversation can change the course of suicide crisis in dramatic ways.

Another effective strategy for helping people get through suicide crises is peer support — a relationship with someone who can speak from personal experience about both struggle and hope.

Many Ohio mental health and recovery organizations offer training and certification for peer support specialists who can then provide powerful and inspiring examples of healing and growth on the job. Unfortunately, on the local level, opportunities to become trained significantly outnumber opportunities to be employed.

It’s hoped that as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline evolves, certified peer support specialists will be invited to make meaningful contributions to the effort in Northeast Ohio, officials said.

At every level of suicide prevention from national SAMHSA experts down to everyday folks, the answer to “What can I do to help?” is essentially the same. A sense of belonging, being treated with kindness and respect, and being shown empathy that comes from trying to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes decreases hopelessness and helplessness. The simple act of listening without judgment could help someone struggling today make it until tomorrow, and that’s something ordinary citizens can do.

If you, or someone you know, is thinking about suicide, reach out to talk with someone who cares. Help Network’s Helpline is open 24 /7 at 211 in Ashtabula, Trumbull, Mahoning, and Columbiana counties, and at 988 beginning July 16. Also, the Trumbull County LOSS program offers valuable support and resources to anyone who’s lost a loved one to suicide. Email Amy Zell at tclossteam@gmail.com for more information.


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