Blog post: 988 usage 2018-2023

By Marnie Werner, Vice President of Research & Operations

In a report we released last February, we talked about an important tool in the work on suicide prevention, 988. The suicide prevention phone number changed in 2022 from its former ten-digit 800 number to the easy-to-remember three digits. As part of our discussion on suicide and mental health, we looked at how many Minnesotans were using the 988 number for calls, texts and chats with counselors between 2018 and 2023.

At the time we were working on that report, Vibrant Emotional Health, the organization that operates the 988 number for the nation, could only supply the numbers for the first half of 2023. We wanted to be able to compare last year to the five years before it, but to do that, we needed call data all of 2023. Since, according to the Minnesota Department of Health, the experts at Vibrant have not been able to find any discernable pattern to the calls based on the time of year—not more calls during Christmas or in the dark days of winter, for example—we decided it would be safe to project numbers for the last half of 2023 by simply doubling the numbers for the first half of that year. It was a safe guess that the projected numbers would be reasonably accurate.

And they were. We now have the numbers for all of 2023, and our projections weren’t out of line, but the actual numbers were still a little surprising. When we recalculated the call rate (number of calls, texts and chat conversations per 100,000 population), and we found that yes, our projected numbers weren’t too far off from the actual numbers, but the actual usage turned out to be higher than expected in all regions except for the seven-county Twin Cities and the southwest Minnesota region (see figure 1a). Looking at the state by population density, the 2023 numbers were higher than expected there, too, except in the entirely urban regions of Greater Minnesota and in the Twin Cities (figure 1b).




Why is this important? For two reasons:

One, in some regions, the call rates we projected for 2023 were lower than for 2022. That was troublesome, especially in the entirely rural counties where suicide rates are the highest (see figure x). With suicides and mental health issues on the rise in the population year after year, you want more people calling the help line, not fewer. The actual numbers for 2023 turned out to be much higher than the year before. They were also much higher than projected in entirely urban Greater Minnesota (Greater Minnesota’s metropolitan counties like Blue Earth, Olmsted, St. Louis, and Stearns). In that group of counties, we projected 2023’s call rate to be lower than 2022, but the actual rate turned out to be much better.



Two, these results also suggest that the efforts to promote 988 are working. The suicide prevention and crisis line has been around for many years, but the change to 988 only happened recently, in July of 2022. At that time, suicide prevention and mental health advocates started promoting 988, but their early efforts were concentrated more in the Twin Cities to guard against overwhelming the service before all the call centers were set up across the state. In 2023, promotion started ramping up in the rest of the state, which may explain why usage is up in most parts of Greater Minnesota compared to previous years.

In all regions of the state, the rate of calls in 2023 was much higher than 2022, including in Northeast and Northwest Minnesota, the two regions with the highest rates of suicide. Calls jumped by more than 20% in Northwest Minnesota and by more than 40% in Northeast Minnesota. The biggest increase, though, was in Central Minnesota, where the number of calls grew by 51%.

Some other new data came out recently, too: The Centers for Disease Control released suicide data for 2022. In some regions of the state the suicide rate dropped compared to 2021, but in other regions it rose (see figures 2a and 2b).

And so we see that there’s still plenty of work to do. But one tool, 988, is getting used, and that’s encouraging to see.

988 is not just for suicide prevention. Anyone having a mental health crisis or who is worried about another individual or just needs to know where to get help can call, text or chat on 988 for immediate, anonymous help.