Mental health officials across the state are reminding New Yorkers about the new 988 national mental health crisis hotline and the importance of talking about these issues to erase the stigma as National Suicide Prevention week continues.

​September is National Suicide Prevention month, or a campaign aimed to raise awareness about the serious public health problem and what to do if you suspect someone is thinking about taking their own life. 

"The tragedy of suicide has become a major public health issue," said Glenn Liebman, CEO of the Mental Health Association in New York State.

A new national mental health crisis hotline went live in mid-July. Callers access a counselor and local mental health resources by dialing 9-8-8.

Liebman hopes in time, people will think of it as readily as dialing 9-1-1.

"Most people have some sort of mental health situation in their lifetime and they should be reaching out if they feel like things have gone too far," he said.

Every year, millions of adults contemplate or plan to die by suicide. Mental health conditions and the suicide rate have skyrocketed in recent years in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In 2020, one person died by suicide in the United States every 11 minutes, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"The question is not, 'hope you're OK, are you doing well?' The question has to be, 'I'm concerned about you and I have to ask: Are you thinking about suicide?'" said John Cooney, a suicide prevention instructor and former Troy police captain.

Cooney teaches suicide prevention and spreads awareness about the issue for emergency responders and civilians across the state and Northeast after getting treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder that saved his life.

In the late '80s as a young Troy police officer, Cooney's mental health suffered after responding to a call where a suicidal father held his infant hostage, threatening to kill the child with a butcher's knife.

He threatened Cooney with the blade after police rescued the child. Cooney knelt with his gun drawn, prepared to fire. His partner intervened, saving him, but slicing his bicep with the knife. 

It sent Cooney into a state of confusion, leading him to believe he shot his partner, even though he never pulled the trigger.

Afterward, it was too much for Cooney to recover on his own, and he struggled to respond to calls. His supervisor warned he had to find help or leave the department, so Cooney called an Employee Assistance Program for help and got the services he needed.

"As soon as I called, it opened up all the opportunities for me to get the treatment, the counseling, the medication — everything I needed to get where I needed, and I'm so proud of where I've gone from that time," Cooney said Thursday.

People contemplating suicide commonly exude hopelessness or get rid of family heirlooms or prized possessions they've cherished throughout life.

"We have to look for that... look for mood changes," said Cooney, adding people planning to take their own life can become more positive once they've decided to do it. "Don't automatically think of a positive mindset means 'Wow, I guess they're OK now.' So ask the question and get the answer, and then go from there."

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young adults, according to the CDC. Suicide rates are higher among veterans, people who live in rural areas, people in the LGBTQ community, middle-aged adults and tribal populations.

It's a topic many people struggle to talk about, leading to a deeper stigma.

The 988 hotline is a new tool mental health advocates say will help normalize those difficult conversations and save lives. Speaking with a stranger is often the most comforting to a person in mental distress, leaving them free from judgment.

The state Office of Mental Health did not respond to multiple requests for comment Thursday about the impact of the rollout of the 988 hotline or the state's efforts on suicide prevention.

Liebman on Thursday stressed the need to fight for better pay for mental health staff and people in the human service sector in the next legislative session and upcoming budget negotiations this winter. He and other advocates plan to urge Gov. Kathy Hochul and lawmakers to create a retirement program for the mental health workforce and see the big picture to help keep people in those careers long-term, leading to strengthened services and better mental health for New Yorkers.