How NAMI’s 988 Call Center Provides Local Support for the National Suicide & Crisis Lifeline

In January, National Alliance of Mental Illness Chicago (NAMI) began operating its own 988 center. 988, formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, is a phone and text crisis line for people experiencing mental health difficulties, linking callers to local support.

988 is for folks who are experiencing mental health distress, including suicidal crisis, as well as suicidal ideation or emotional distress.

“The gentleman I spoke to listened to me and reassured me that anyone would be having a hard time in my situation and that it was okay to feel terrible. He asked me if I was willing to try and get some sleep to see how I felt in the morning. It was a perfectly reasonable request and I couldn’t think of any good reason why I couldn’t do just that. It saved my life.”

Anonymous 988 Caller

“We understand that distress comes in a lot of different forms,” says Jen McGowan-Tomke, NAMI Chicago’s chief operating officer. “Folks need support, or they may not need resources at all. They may just need a listening ear and someone trained to help support them in that moment.”

NAMI Chicago Chief Operating Officer Jen McGowan-Tomke

988 centers are located around the country and staffed with volunteers who aim to offer help that is as local as possible.  

“If you need to connect with someone in person at the moment when you’re in a mental health crisis, the folks who know who those providers are, who those resources are—the mental health folks in your community,” says McGowan-Tomke.

If you call 988 and you’re routed to the NAMI call center, you’ll speak with one of 24 crisis counselors who staff the line 24/7. Call line volunteers complete a three-week training developed by NAMI Chicago and Vibrant Emotional Health, 988’s national network provider.

“Our training is around utilizing our assessment tools, but also our team’s clinical expertise to help manage folks to safety, whatever that looks like,” McGowan-Tomke says.

I found a local (to my state) line that was incredibly helpful [while I was] ugly crying. I can’t speak for all local lines, but that man talked to me for over an hour and by the end of the call I laughed a couple of times.”

Anonymous 988 Caller

Illinois continues to promote awareness of 988 as an intervention that McGowan-Tomke says “is a low barrier option for folks who are experiencing that distress in the moment,” which doesn’t necessarily mean a suicidal crisis.

“Folks may be experiencing hopelessness, or feel down, or have challenges at work, or at home, where they’re not necessarily experiencing thoughts of suicide, but they’re feeling distressed,” she said.

Illinois residents can also call 988 on behalf of a loved one who may be experiencing a mental health crisis, whether it’s an elderly relative in distress, a child with anxiety, or a spouse with deep depression.

“We’ll try to see whether coaching that person to have a conversation about reaching out to resources or calling 988 themselves would be beneficial,” said McGowan-Tomke.

Another part of the effort to spread the word about 988 involves reassuring people that contacting the number does not mean police will be dispatched.

If someone isn’t available to answer a 988 call in the local center, then Vibrant reroutes it to the next available regional call center. This means it could be answered somewhere within the national network.

“Our experience is that less than 1% of our calls require a higher level of intervention,” said McGowan-Tomke. “Our teams work to de-escalate on calls and to plan for safety, and they do it in a person-centered, strengths-based approach that seeks to build rapport with callers. They’re working with folks to safety plan and to de-escalate a current crisis with a plan to remain safe over time.”

“I called the suicide hotline as a friend watching someone with suicidal ideations. I didn’t want to do something that would push my friend deeper down that hole—I’m not a therapist or a suicide survivor myself. The hotline gave me some tools and some guidance. It wasn’t panacea, but it did help me help them.”

Anonymous 988 Caller

One of NAMI’s pillars is advancing public policies that support mental health, which includes a 2023-2024 policy calling for sustainable funding for the 988 call center system. “What should the crisis continuum look like?” said McGowan-Tomke. “What is our vision? What does success look like in Illinois? What resources are needed to fund that?”

She says fully-funded legislation to support the mental health care system will likely happen in Illinois, but it’s still in the research phase. In the meantime, she says there is still a lot of work to do.

“There are still steps to take in building services that folks need in the community,” she said. At the same time, there are a lot of efforts to help folks connect with someone when they need it.”

I called a few times 3 years ago at 2 a.m.. A guy that answered actually called me back and left a message tell me not to do it and that people cared. The call back did help me realize that things could get better.”

Anonymous 988 caller

How To Help

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is the largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness. NAMI focuses on everything from providing workshops and programs for patients and families to collaborating with local, state, and national government officials to research and draft mental health policy. Your donation to NAMI will help the organization continue these important programs and launch additional local and national resources.

More From Better

Claire Zulkey is a writer based in Evanston, IL, where she was born and raised. Her writing has appeared in local publications like Block Club Chicago, the Evanston Roundtable and Chicago Magazine as well as national publications like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and the Atlantic.

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