In case you missed it, the new national mental health crisis line launched in July. For those in any kind of mental health distress, including thoughts of suicide, dialing 988 (24/7) immediately connects you with trained mental health counselors who can help you figure out critical next steps. The national health hotline has been several years in the making. Read on to learn how the mental health version of 911 came about.
What is the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline?
The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is a national network of more than 200 crisis centers that help thousands of people overcome crisis situations every day. These centers are supported by local and state resources, as well as the Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The 988 Lifeline provides 24/7, confidential support to people in suicidal crisis or mental health-related distress.
Modeled after 911, the new three-digit 988 number is designed to be a memorable and quick number that connects people who feel they are in any kind of mental health crisis, with a trained mental health professional. Currently, the number automatically routes calls by area code to the nearest crisis center.
Sources of federal funding for 988 are separate from those of the 911 system, so the new hotline is not pulling any funds away from 911.
Note that veterans can press “1” after dialing 988 to connect directly to the Veterans Crisis Lifeline which serves our nation’s Veterans, service members, National Guard, and Reserve members.
What’s behind the development of 988?
In the past, the majority of people experiencing a mental health emergency ended up dialing 911. The problem is that 911 wasn't set up to address mental health needs, so callers may end up in long lines in an ER, or interacting with law enforcement who may not be trained to handle their specific mental health crisis. Mental health advocates pushed for the new 988 hotline in the hopes that it would become a widely known, safer, and more effective alternative.
In mid-2020, the FCC adopted rules to establish 988 as the nationwide, 3-digit dialing code for people in crisis, and later that year, the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020 was signed into law. The FCC adopted additional rules in November 2021 to expand access to the hotline by establishing the ability to also text to 988. As a result, covered phone service and text providers in all of the US states and territories were required to direct all 988 calls and texts to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by July 16, 2022.
There is significant government investment to back up the new service - Congress and the current administration have dedicated $432 million toward building the capacity of local and backup call centers, and providing associated services, including a subnetwork for Spanish speakers.
"One of the goals of 988 is to ensure that people get the help that they need when they need it, where they need it. And so, when a person calls 988, they can expect to have a conversation with a trained, compassionate crisis counselor who will talk with them about what they're experiencing. If it's the case that they need further intervention, then likely the crisis counselor will connect with a local mobile crisis team," says Dr. Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, the administrator of SAMHSA.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline's 10-digit number — 1-800-273-8255 — will remain active, but calls will be routed to 988.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): How does the new 988 work?