Note (10/20/22): This story is being updated as school districts provide requested information.
Allegheny County’s largest school districts vary widely in the actions they’ve taken to elevate student awareness of the new 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, meant to provide support to people of all ages experiencing mental health crises.
While some districts have promoted the hotline in multiple ways, others have remained silent so far. The two state agencies most involved with education and mental health have yet to provide schools with direct guidance on promoting 988.
Launched in July, the 988 lifeline connects Pennsylvania callers to local crisis call centers, where trained crisis counselors will answer the call, listen and then provide support and resources if needed. In the case that a local crisis center is unable to take the call, the caller is automatically routed to a national backup crisis center. Callers are allowed to remain anonymous.
As the overall state of youth mental health declines, students and mental health advocates praise the 988 hotline’s accessibility, but some worry if young people are being provided with the knowledge necessary to decide whether to use it.
No standard for schools
When the 988 hotline first launched, the state Department of Education and Department of Human Services [DHS] directed stakeholders to the 988 webpage and shared an informational flyer, but did not provide specific instructions on whether or how schools should promote the hotline. In response to questions, both departments said they have “broadly and consistently” promoted the hotline, and DHS is researching future messaging strategies.
PublicSource contacted the 12 largest school districts in Allegheny County about their efforts to inform students, parents and staff about the 988 hotline.
At least four of the 12 districts have not provided information about the 988 helpline to their students, parents and staff so far. Other districts circulated information in emails, newsletters, posters and on social media.
The county’s largest school district — Pittsburgh Public Schools — is one of three districts that did not provide requested information to PublicSource by deadline. However, it shares basic information about the hotline on its website.
Korey Lowe, a junior at Pittsburgh Obama 6-12, said he thinks his school’s efforts to spread word about the 988 hotline have been minimal. But he acknowledged that 988 promotional efforts, including posters he’s seen in the school, are more than what he has previously noted for other mental health resources.
“They should do more because as long as you can see it, it helps,” he said.
South Fayette Township School District circulated information about mental health resources and the 988 helpline in its fall newsletter, which went out last week.
“It is our responsibility to bring the information and resources to students. Outside of social media, that’s where they do get a lot of information,” said Rachel Andler, director of student support services at the district.
At least one student thinks more could have been done.
Mohammad Shedeed, a senior at South Fayette High School who is a member of the PA Youth Advocacy Network and the national mental health initiative Work2BeWell, said he wishes his school shared information about the 988 hotline during back-to-school assemblies, morning announcement or by hanging posters in the hallways.
“People don't realize that there are resources for them out there, so they feel like they're isolated,” Shedeed said. “That's very detrimental to them because if you feel isolated, you're not going to reach out and then you can internalize those feelings, which exacerbates your situation.”
Andler said the 988 helpline is just a small resource in the plethora of other resources at the district, including the student-run mental health club Stand Together and a partnership with the Allegheny Health Network to provide therapists in schools.
“We want to make sure that we're providing them with what they need,” she said.
As a leader of Stand Together, Shedeed feels that the ultimate responsibility to learn about schools’ mental health resources falls on students themselves. Students in the club are prompting the school to do more while also leading efforts to raise awareness of the resources, including handing their peers cards listing the available resources.
Scrolling for answers, avoiding falsehoods
Students are turning to another source for information about the 988 hotline: social media.
That’s how Lowe learned about it. “The teachers or counselors never spoke to us about the helpline. I heard about it, mostly through TikTok and stuff. My friends are also aware about it through social media.”
“Not everyone might figure out from social media that there is a new hotline number,” Shedeed said.
He has seen many peers sharing posts about the 988 hotline on platforms like Instagram, but has also witnessed false information online, like rumors that the hotline’s call centers are staffed by robots and that a majority of calls result in law enforcement becoming involved.
The 988 line was created in part to remove behavioral crisis calls from the 911 system, which is geared toward dispatching public safety agencies.
The false information circulating online about 988 makes it especially crucial for schools to set the record straight, Shedeed said. Otherwise, students may remain in the dark about how to use the hotline.
The need for the ‘safe route’
Mental health advocates believe it’s important for students to learn about the 988 hotline because the overall state of youth mental health has been in “crisis mode” for three years, with no sign of ebbing anytime soon.
“I know everyone says the pandemic exacerbated things, and that’s not an understatement. As many times as it’s been said, it’s the truth,” said Heather Wilkes, the policy manager for Allies for Children, a group advocating for children’s well-being.
The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened feelings of anxiety, depression and hopelessness among students because they’ve been forced to continuously adapt to changing norms in and out of the classroom. Factors like bullying, family financial struggles and an increase in violence add to concerns about youth mental health.
The 2021 PA Youth Survey showed that, since 2017, Allegheny County students increasingly acted on negative emotions and impulses, with notable upticks in the frequency of self-harm, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.
Read more: Is 99 cents per phone too much for 988?
Beyond being easier to memorize than the hotline’s previous 10-digit number, the 988 hotline benefits youth because it circumvents barriers that have deterred students from accessing mental health care programs, like stigma and a lack of transportation, Wilkes said. However, concerns remain about call centers’ capacity to handle the volume of calls and about the potential for law enforcement to become involved in responses.
“Police are a trigger in and of itself, so it could make a mental health crisis worse, even if the police didn't do or say anything wrong — just their presence alone,” Wilkes said.
Youth should call 988 any time they feel they’re experiencing a crisis and are unable to access support from a trusted figure like a caretaker or teacher, Wilkes said.
“I think youth should not be hesitant to use the line and fear people finding out about it or worry about any type of backlash from it,” Wilkes said. “I think that it's a safe route.”
Lajja Mistry is PublicSource’s K-12 education reporter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amelia Winger is PublicSource’s health reporter with a focus on mental health. She can be reached at email@example.com.
This story was fact-checked by Aavin Mangalmurti.
This reporting has been made possible through funding from The Grable Foundation, the Staunton Farm Mental Health Reporting Fellowship and the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.
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Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're glad to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.
However, only .01% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
Your donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.