Amid recent alarm over the post-pandemic youth mental health crisis facing Montgomery County and beyond, one beacon of help is gaining traction with young residents—the 988 helpline’s text function. Since the helpline’s launch last year, experts say Maryland has seen a tenfold increase in text interactions among youth seeking support in dealing with everything from relationship breakups to suicidal ideation.
“I find the work to be incredibly rewarding,” said Rockville hotline counselor Blair, whose last name EveryMind requested not be published due to the sensitive nature of his work. He continued, “On a community-based level, we’ve become a little more isolated as time goes on, whether because of COVID-19 or otherwise. I really think it’s necessary to have these services help fill in the gaps where our social interweaving has been lacking in recent generations.”
One year ago, Rockville-based mental health services provider EveryMind partnered with the national suicide hotline system for the launch of the 988 crisis helpline, reachable via phone call, text message or online chat. The helpline is a free resource offering virtual support to anyone struggling with their mental health or otherwise in need of support. In April, EveryMind data shows its call center handled 1,187 text or chat interactions—a spike from 119 logged last April.
EveryMind runs one of nine 988 call centers across the state of Maryland. Approximately 70 counselors like Blair work out of their Rockville offices, which responds to the bulk of Montgomery County callers.
“I find that a lot of our younger chatters are looking for social systems,” Blair said. He said young residents often turn to 988 counselors for support instead of their parents because they’re “afraid of upsetting them in some capacity,” citing topics such as gender and sexuality as examples.
Before hitting the lines, 988 counselors undergo five weeks of intensive training on communication and mental health best practices, according to EveryMind helpline director Ariel Gordon.
The training combines 40 hours of classroom learning with online interactive training components, followed by a period of shift observation and mentorship with more experienced counselors.
“No matter what, those first few shifts are very stressful,” Gordon said. “You’re interacting with visitors in situations you’ve likely never supported someone through before. Even after years of experience, skills are constantly developing as we see different trends in the topics coming up on the helpline.”
Fellow counselor Lalita said the helpline’s chat and text functions are particularly useful for young residents who desire anonymity when reaching out for help. She said she’s found it’s often easier for young people to describe difficult feelings with written words rather than verbalize them.
The challenges chatters seek help with can range from relationship breakups and family dynamics to bullying, self-harm, suicidal ideation and abuse, Lalita said. She added, “Every interaction is highly unique. We do our best to collaborate with the visitor—we never try to force anything on anybody.”
Nationally, less than 1% of 988 users are determined in need of emergency intervention, according to Gordon. Out of all the text and chat interactions EveryMind handles in a month, at least 45% are from residents 24 years old or younger, Gordon said. By contrast, less than 10% of phone calls come from the same demographic, she said.
“This is a resource for anyone who needs to reach out for supportive listening,” Gordon said. “It doesn’t have to be that they’re calling at the moment of most acute crisis. It’s a resource available anytime for someone who needs someone to talk to.”
Polling data from the Pew Charitable Trust published in May reveals only 13% of Americans are familiar with the 988 helpline and how it works. Gordon, Lalita and Blair said they hope more Montgomery County residents—particularly young residents—feel empowered to reach out for help regardless of their struggles.
“988 can be the first step to any level of help you need,” Blair said. “We can help you find therapy. If you need someone to talk to because you’re lonely, we can listen. We can help you find resources depending on your religious denomination, your gender identity, your background. We’re the one-stop-shop to find a better tomorrow. If you need to reach out for any possible reason, 988 is there for you.”