National Suicide Prevention Month – The Importance of Dialing 9-8-8

A helpful change in preventing potential suicides and easing mental health crises has arrived. And it’s fitting that during September, which is National Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month, we can draw attention to dialing the new phone number, 9-8-8 for anyone suffering from a mental health crisis. With this change, callers can expect compassionate, accessible care and support that is available to anyone experiencing mental health-related distress, thoughts of suicide or a mental health or substance abuse crisis.

This might seem like a minor change, but it’s a significant shift. It will be easier to remember, and over time, as we adjust to the new number, it will be part of our everyday culture, by someone who might be in the throes of a mental health crisis. (The previous 10-digit number 1-800-273-TALK (or 8255) will still work.)

But if this new telephone number is a “nudge” toward change, as one famous psychologist suggests, then there is another approach that deserves a push. We need to support those with mental health issues by ensuring they have professionals who can help. That means someone with the training, experience, instincts and compassion to offer assistance.

Unfortunately, New Jersey continues to lag in this instance. The National Alliance on Mental Illness says 39,712 people live in New Jersey communities that do not have enough mental health professionals. That is a considerable shortfall of much-need experts. The FY23 budget the Legislature approved in June will distribute $480.5 million as grants-in-aid to the Division of Mental Health and Addiction within the NJ

Department of Human Services. Of that amount, $5.62 million will be issued to a fund that would add more mental health professionals statewide. It is a terrifying thought that someone needing help, who recognizes the need for assistance, cannot find a health care professional in their community to turn to for support. This funding will go a long way to closing that gap.

Is there any light in this tunnel of darkness? There is, though illuminating, it should not detract from acknowledging the pain the families suffer because a family member commits suicide. In 2020 (the latest available figures), the Centers for Disease Control noted that New Jersey led the nation in the lowest number of suicides at 7.1 per 100,000. Of course, we shouldn’t forget that even with that lowest percentage (the highest was Wyoming with 30.5 per 100,000), individuals – our friends, family, or neighbors- were presumably tormented enough to take their own life.

This is why the funding that I have discussed that would increase the number of mental health care professionals remains a worthy and needed goal. The work continues to help every New Jerseyan when and if they have a mental health crisis.

That’s my take, what’s yours?