A new push to make it easier for Alaskans to access free and confidential help during a mental health crisis has arrived in the form of a simplified 3-digit phone number that went live Saturday, in the state and nationwide.
The new phone number — 988 — will connect Alaskans with a 907 area code to Careline Alaska, the state’s suicide prevention hotline.
Leah Van Kirk, a suicide prevention coordinator with the Alaska Division of Behavioral Health, called the simplification of the number “amazing,” adding that she hoped 988 will soon become as easy to remember as 911 — and make it easier for Alaskans in crisis to get help.
“We know that people are struggling with mental health, especially after the pandemic,” she said. The new number makes it easier for Alaskans in crisis to be able to access the hotline without having to look up a phone number, she said.
Alaska’s suicide rate has long been among the highest in the country. Alaska’s average annual adolescent suicide rate from 2016 to 2019 was about three times higher than the national average.
During 2019, suicide was the leading overall cause of death for Alaska youths and young adults ages 15 to 24 — the only age group where that was the case, Van Kirk said. Rates were also highest among Alaska Native people, men and people ages 20-24, state data showed.
Nationally, the suicide rate has risen by nearly 30% since 1999.
The Alaska Careline is operated by crisis counselors 24/7, with translators and interpreters available for non-English speakers and those who are deaf or hard of hearing. Alaskans can call or text that number for help. Non-Alaska numbers will get connected to other National Suicide Prevention Lifeline centers around the country.
Anyone who feels strongly about talking to someone in Alaska can continue to call Alaska Careline directly at 877-266-HELP after 988 launches.
Data on the Alaska Careline and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline shows that the tool has helped reduce suicidality and people’s level of crisis. Over the last five years, the Alaska hotline has received between 20,000 and 25,000 calls per year, Van Kirk said. The vast majority of those calls don’t result in emergency intervention by law enforcement or other agencies, she said.
“An effectively resourced 988 Lifeline can truly save lives; it connects a person in a mental health crisis or contemplating suicide to a trained counselor who can address their immediate needs and help connect them to ongoing care,” Steve Williams, CEO of Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, wrote in a statement. “By promoting 988 and talking about the importance of the lifeline we can also help end the stigma associated with seeking mental health care.”
The number is “for anyone who’s experiencing emotional distress,” which can include those who are worried about their loved ones, Van Kirk said.
“A lot of times, we find ourselves in situations where we’re concerned about a loved one or a friend who might be thinking about suicide. And so 988 be used as a resource for help, and counselors will walk people through what they can do and what they should do,” she said.
According to a prepared statement from the state, the push to implement 988 in Alaska began in April 2021. It is the result of a 2020 congressional decision that designated 988 as the dialing code to operate through the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
If you or someone you know are dealing with a mental health crisis or suicidal thoughts, you can call the 24/7 Alaska Careline at 988 beginning Saturday, July 16, or 1-877-266-HELP at any time. For more information on the Alaska Suicide Prevention Council and suicide in Alaska, visit dhss.alaska.gov/suicideprevention.
Correction: Leah Van Kirk is a suicide prevention coordinator with the Alaska Division of Behavioral Health, not the Division of Public Health as reported in an earlier version of this story.