What is it like to be a 988 counselor?
July 16 marks the 1-year anniversary of the national transition to the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (988 Lifeline). Within the first year, the 988 Lifeline connected over 5 million individuals with emotional and suicidal crisis support. It is available 24/7, confidential, and there to offer hope—but what is it like working on the inside? Psychiatric Times sat down with crisis counselor Jennifer Lang to learn more.
PT: Could you describe a day working as a 988 counselor?
JL: As a counselor for the 988 Lifeline, we get calls nonstop, and that could be anything from someone looking for resources for a therapist or someone in crisis with suicidal ideation. Sometimes we offer help through our mobile crisis team visit. Working at a crisis center, we never really know what type of call we will get, but it is important always to be prepared for anything.
PT: What do you wish mental health clinicians like psychiatrists knew about 988? If you could spread a message to mental health practitioners across the country, what message do you think they should know?
JL: I wish more mental health clinicians like psychiatrists knew that the 988 Lifeline aims to make accessing crisis support easier and more accessible to anyone in distress. Clinicians should familiarize themselves with the resources available through the 988 Lifeline and understand how it operates. This includes being aware of the crisis intervention protocols, the services provided, and the types of support offered to individuals in crisis. Our team is there to provide confidential support, deescalate the crisis, and spread messages of hope to anyone in emotional distress.
PT: What would you say is the most rewarding part of what you do?
JL: The most rewarding part would probably be having somebody tell me at the end of the call that I made them feel better—that they felt like they were heard and validated. Often, this is the first time they ever really had somebody listen to them. Maybe they tried to talk to friends or family in the past and were shut down for whatever reason. Having somebody on the other line who is nonjudgmental can really help.
PT: Now, do you handle only calls or do you handle any texts and chats as well? In your experience, would you say you receive more of texts and chats, or calls? Is it balanced out?
JL: Yes, I do texts and chats. We take 2 chats or texts at a time. You could have one come in, and then, a couple of minutes later, another one comes in so that it can be a balancing act. But we receive mostly calls.
PT: Can you speak a little bit about your training? Was it a long process?
JL: I think it was more than a month’s worth of training? It might have been a little bit shortened at the time because of the period that we were in. They really needed a lot of counselors.
We went over all the stages of a call: getting the person engaged, identifying the issues that they had, providing resources, and knowing how to navigate the system that we have for said resources. We practiced calls with each other with different scenarios and listened to previous calls recorded for training purposes. They went over all the different types of situations that you could encounter. Of course, there are always some situations that are brand new when you get on the line. We have multiple supervisors that are available on shift to help out.
I think the rigorous training really helped us be able to navigate what we are listening to.
PT: What made you want to be a counselor for 988? Was it something you were already interested in?
JL: I started out volunteering at another organization, which helped prepare me to be a counselor. I enjoy helping others, and it feels rewarding and fulfilling to make someone’s day a bit better. By volunteering, I realized that this was something that I wanted to pursue long-term.
PT: If you had to list anything that you want to see 988 improve on, what would it be? What do you see as the future of 988?
JL: The 988 Lifeline is expanding every day across the country. It is important to reach every type of group and community that might feel like they do not have someone listening to them. It is important to feel heard, and 988 counselors offer that for anyone who does not have access to therapists or mental health services.
PT: Finally, if someone were looking to become a counselor, what advice would you give to them?
JL: First, you need to prioritize mental health just as much as you do with your physical health. It is important to understand what it means to be a counselor—provide guidance, support, and therapeutic interventions to help individuals navigate their personal, emotional, and psychological challenges. As a reminder for counselors, it is important to care for your well-being and engage in activities that bring you joy because counseling work can be emotionally demanding.
If you’re interested in becoming a 988 counselor, you can learn more here.
Ms Lang is a 988 crisis counselor.