By Lisa Phu
Alaskans who find themselves in a mental health crisis can now call or text 988 to access a trained crisis counselor. Support is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to individuals of all ages.
The three-digit number for suicide prevention and mental health crisis support became operational in Alaska and across the nation on July 16.
Leah Van Kirk, statewide suicide prevention coordinator with the Alaska Division of Behavioral Health, said 988 “provides an easy to remember three-digit number for someone to use when they’re in crisis or when they’re in emotional distress.”
“It’s for anyone that’s experiencing emotional distress, mental health crisis, substance use crisis, thoughts of suicide, and also for someone who maybe has a friend or a loved one who they’re worried about and they want to get help,” she said. “So it’s to support those in crisis and those who are maybe trying to help someone in crisis and aren’t sure how.”
Callers in Alaska using 988 from a 907 area code will be connected to Careline Alaska based in Fairbanks. Counselors are trained to respond to a crisis, provide emotional support and connect callers with local resources. Confidential support is available to anyone in crisis, including non-English speakers and those who are deaf or hard of hearing.
“The Careline and 988 are answered by Alaskans for Alaskans because we know what it’s like here,” Van Kirk said. “Having a call center here run by Alaskans is really important.”
In 2020, the suicide rate in Alaska was 28.1 per 100,000 people, more than twice the national average, according to Van Kirk. That same year, suicide was the second leading cause of death overall for youth and young adults ages 15 to 34 in Alaska. It’s also preventable.
“Sometimes when people call they just need someone to talk to. One of the things that we know about our crisis call center is that it decreases suicidality. So being able to reach out and talk to somebody helps reduce risk,” Van Kirk said.
Between 2017 and 2020, Careline Alaska received over 20,000 calls each year. Van Kirk expects that to go up with the implementation of 988. The state has allocated $1.3 million to support increases in staffing, technology and a small media campaign targeting youth and young adults. The money comes from COVID-19 Supplemental and American Rescue Plan Act Mental Health Block grant funding.
Now 911 dispatchers can transfer calls that don’t involve a medical, fire or police emergency.
“It just reduces need for a law enforcement response when somebody is struggling with a mental health crisis,” Van Kirk said.
Those in Alaska calling 988 from an area code other than 907 will be connected to that state’s crisis center network. Nationally, the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is a network of more than 200 crisis centers. There’s also an option to chat online with a crisis counselor at 988lifeline.org/chat.
The numbers for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 800-273-8255 – and Careline Alaska – 877-266-HELP – still work.