Assignment incomplete: With little state guidance, schools are all over the board about sharing 988 hotline info

(Photo illustration by Natasha Vicens/PublicSource)

A new suicide and crisis hotline could be a lifesaver during the current youth mental health crisis, but some schools haven’t yet reached out to students, parents and staff.

by Lajja Mistry and Amelia Winger

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. 

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