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5 Principles to Guide Your 988 Outreach and Messaging Efforts to Key Populations

Warning to the reader: This blog discusses various experiences that you may find yourself identifying with while reading. Should you need emotional or mental health-related support, please contact 988 or a local trusted support.

Suicide is rarely caused by a single event or circumstance.

Many individual, relationship, community and societal conditions or factors can contribute to suicide risk. Some groups experience more negative social conditions and factors related to suicide than others, like racism and discrimination, economic hardship, poverty, limited affordable housing, lack of education opportunities, and barriers to physical and mental healthcare access. Additionally, certain groups may exhibit higher or recently increased rates of suicide, suicide attempts, or suicidal ideation than the general U.S. population, marking them as higher risk or disproportionately impacted by suicide.

In July 2022, the U.S. transitioned the 10-digit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to 988, an easy-to-remember three-digit number for 24/7 crisis care. Since its launch, reports show 988 has received almost five million contacts, including calls, chats and texts. But as a new service, no research existed on its usage: awareness of it, trust or mistrust of it, or how to reach key populations with impactful messaging.

To fill this gap and provide actionable insights, the Ad Council Research Institute (ACRI) launched new formative research. The report focuses on understanding the awareness, perspectives, and current and potential usage of the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline among eight key populations that are at higher risk for, or disproportionately impacted by, suicide:

  • American Indian/Alaska Native youth and young adults (ages 13-34)
  • Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander youth and young adults (ages 13-34)
  • Black youth and young adults (ages 13-34)
  • Hispanic youth and young adults (ages 13-34)
  • Individuals who have attempted suicide or experienced serious thoughts of suicide during their lifetime (ages 13+)
  • LGBTQIA+ youth and adults (ages 13-49)
  • People with disabilities (ages 13+)
  • Rural older men (ages 49+)

This project, in partnership with Action Alliance and Suicide Prevention Research Center, and supported by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, was designed to provide insights and an actionable toolkit for individuals seeking to support these populations through culturally sensitive, responsive, effective and successful 988 communications. 

Based on our findings, we recommend the following guidelines when crafting messaging and developing campaigns for these groups.

1. Tap into what individuals need most when struggling: someone to talk to at any time.
When the populations we surveyed face mental health challenges or find themselves in a crisis situation, their most pressing need is someone to talk to. Messaging about 988 has a vital opportunity to fill this void for people struggling, ensuring that there is always someone available to talk, confide in, receive trained assistance from, or simply to listen.

2. Communicate what 988 is and who is involved.
About half of the participants in the study said they know what 988 is, but most don’t know much about it. Organizations have a substantial opportunity here to build broad awareness of 988 as a resource—and to help key populations understand what it really is, who is personally involved to help them, and the support they offer.

In addition, participants were confused or disliked the word “crisis,” which they felt indicated that 988 should only be contacted as a last resort. Organizations have an opportunity to expand 988 messaging efforts beyond existing perceptions and move into the overall mental health and wellness space. Our toolkit offers additional recommendations on words, phrases and numbers that present challenges and how organizations can navigate them.

3. Address the factors that make people hesitant to use 988.
Younger audiences aged 13-34, expressed concerns about whether the person on the other line is a trusted individual who can relate to and understand their situation. Older participants were also concerned about privacy and confidentiality. Communicators should lean into these objections through campaign messaging to instill trust and alleviate concerns among potential users.

4. Reiterate the humans behind the hotline.
If people are going to use 988, they want to talk to someone who listens in a non-judgmental way—providing a space to discuss real-life challenges. This is also the messaging that most resonated with participants in the message frame portion of the study.

While many populations said they turn to and trust information from mental health professionals and organizations, 988 messaging shouldn’t be clinical. Instead, it should educate people on areas they are interested in, like mental wellness, handling situations involving mental health struggles, and effective communication skills to support those who are struggling.

5. Leverage trusted messengers for message delivery. 
Among younger populations in the sample, people were more likely to search Google for mental health resources than calling the hotline. Participants ages 13-34 were also more likely to get information from or reach out to their friends or family, while older participants were more likely to get information or support from a spouse or partner. It’s key for organizations to reach people where they are and through those they trust in order to truly inform and compel people to trust and use 988.

Download the report, 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: Messaging and Communications to People at Higher Risk for or Disproportionately Impacted by Suicide, for a full look at findings and takeaways from this critical study.

Photo by Egin Akyurt / Pexels


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