One of several 988-hotline advertisements being shared in Philadelphia communities (Courtesy DBHIDS).

For the past year, Philadelphia has been trying to get the word out to residents about 988, an easy-to-dial number for suicide and mental health crisis services, but many city teens still say they’ve never heard of it.

The line rolled out nationally in July of 2022, after being announced by federal officials in Philadelphia. The West Philly death of Walter Wallace Jr., who died in 2020 after being shot by police during a mental health crisis, brought a lot of attention to the topic, sparking protests across the city. 

There has been a rising need for mental health resources across the country since the pandemic as people have struggled with the social, emotional and financial fallout. The need is particularly acute among youth — emergency room visits related to mental health increased by 31% for people aged 12-17 nationwide from 2019 to 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The 988 line, designed as an easy-to-remember alternative to 911 for mental health crises, is supposed to help anyone access local crisis resources and non-police help during an emergency.

But of about two dozen Philadelphia youth informally surveyed recently, about two-thirds had never heard of the crisis hotline. Almost all said 988 would be beneficial.

“We just have so much on us as kids growing up today,” Geeia Mahoney, a 15-year-old sophomore at the Philadelphia High School for Girls. “We don’t get to experience childhood anymore dealing with all the struggles that we have to in our daily lives, and those basic necessities impacting our mental health.”

And, she said, having support is critical.

It would help a lot of people, Mahoney said, “to just be on the phone with somebody, to help and for them to help you through whatever you’re going through personally.” It also would help for someone “to come and check you out and make sure that everything’s stable within you … that you’re not gonna hurt yourself or anybody else,” she said.

So why hasn’t Mahoney, or most of the other teens surveyed, heard of 988? City leaders say they’re not too surprised, despite their ongoing outreach efforts.

“In terms of everybody know[ing] about 988, we don’t expect that yet,” Jill Bowen, commissioner of the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS) said in an interview with student reporters.

Philadelphia, along with many other cities and counties across the country, is fighting against misinformation about 988 circulated on social media, including concerns about the confidentiality of the system, as well as ongoing widespread stigma around seeking help for mental health issues.

There is also no budget yet for a national federally-supported ad campaign around 988, leaving local governments to get the word out on their own.

Philly residents may have heard public service announcements about 988 or seen posters or social media posts created by the city and its communication partners, but Bowen said that despite this outreach, they still hear from a lot of people in the community who don’t know about 988.

When DBHIDS hosted a series of community “listening sessions” over the past year, it included one session for high school students — a group from a Center City charter school who live in North, Northeast and West Philly, per the department.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” Bowen said.

Geeia Mahoney is a 15-year-old student at the Philadelphia High School for Girls who believes that for teens, mental health support is key. (Geeia Mahoney)

Rising need among youth

Amira Adam, a junior at Julia R. Masterman High School who hadn’t heard of 988, said she wouldn’t have known what to do in a mental health crisis besides calling 911.

“It’s good that there’s something dedicated to mental health as it’s a huge issue,” Adam said. “And I hope it’s helpful because I don’t think many people know it.”

Evan Lu, a Drexel University student, had a friend who recently struggled with mental health issues. “I have tried researching mental help tips along the way to help him,” said Lu. “Had I known about 988, I would have called 988 to get information to help him.”

Despite the lack of widespread awareness, there has been a steady increase in the number of calls, texts and chats received over the past year nationwide. In Philadelphia, more than 107,000 calls came into the line from January to June, with an average of about 6,000 calls per month. The city’s community mobile response crisis teams were dispatched almost 10,000 times over the same period.

The city did not have data available on the number of teens who have accessed the line, but almost 2,700 of the city’s roughly 9,000 mobile dispatches where age was reported (about 30%) were for children and youth up to age 29.

In September, the federal government launched a pilot line within 988 to support LGBTQ+ youth and young adults, who are four times as likely to contemplate suicide than their heterosexual peers. Since its launch, the demand for this line accounted for about 6% of calls to 988 and 11% of chats and text — about 138,000 contacts altogether, according to Vibrant Emotional Health, which administers the 988 line.

Philadelphia’s DBHIDS plans to use the input from its high school listening session to tailor a youth-friendly ad and outreach campaign expected to roll out this fall, according to the department. T

It’ll include freebies like refrigerator magnets, stickers, and other items; a toolkit for schools and youth-focused institutions; and a social media campaign driven by teen “influencers” in the community. Outreach will also include partnership with city schools, including charter and private schools.

Amy La, a student at the Philadelphia High School for Girls, agrees that 988 would be a life-saver for teens. (Courtesy Amy La)

Some Philadelphia teens said they’ll certainly use 988, now that they know it’s a thing.

“It’s extremely important to have a dedicated number for mental health emergencies to ensure appropriate support and assistance,” said Tiffany Huang, a sophomore from Philadelphia High School for Girls.

Amy La, a sophomore at Girls’ High, believes youth using 988 more could make a huge difference: “Making the reach for help easier and less of a hassle would save more lives and convince more people to reach out, rather than compelling them to take an easier route of ending their lives.”

Zahiya Daniels and Eyitemi Odusola are sophomores at The Philadelphia High School for Girls, , Lidya Roach and Toga Mohamed are juniors at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts...