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988 Mental Health Hotline: What It Is and What It Means for You

Woman taking a call on a hotline
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What's happening

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is getting a new number in July. All you have to do is dial 988 for crisis intervention.

Why it matters

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people.

What it means for you

988 is an easy-to-remember number that you can dial to connect with suicide prevention and mental health crisis resources.

A new three-digit mental health suicide and crisis lifeline will launch on July 16. 988 will bring mental health resources to Americans by replacing the 10-digit number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline established in 2005. The 10-digit number will still be active; 988 is just a much-needed update that facilitates getting help during a mental health crisis. 

Health officials expect the simple number change to significantly increase call volume to local crisis centers. Meaning what is intended to be a stride in accessibility may unintentionally overload already under-funded crisis centers. 

The Rand Corporation surveyed 180 health officials to gauge preparedness for the 988 July rollout. Findings include:

  • Only 16% of officials reported adjusting budgets to include 988 operations. 
  • 85% reported having mental health centers operating in their area. However, less than half were part of the Lifeline network. 
  • 48% of centers only have short-term "crisis stabilization" services. 
  • Only 28% of centers have urgent care units ready for dispatch for mental health events. 

The report shows that the upcoming number change has not translated to increased resources for crisis centers. 

What is 988 and does it work?

When you dial 988 come July, you will be connected to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a network of 200 nationwide crisis centers. It is an equivalent to 911 and will connect you to trained mental health professionals who can help. 988 will not have all the resources 911 has. The network will be closely communicating with 911 dispatchers if emergency resources are needed. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, only 2% of current Lifeline calls require emergency support from 911. 

What happens when you call lifeline:

  • When you call, you will be directed to your closest crisis center based on your area code.  
  • Once connected, the trained mental health professional will listen and help address the issue by providing support and resources. 
  • You will be connected to a backup location if your local center is unavailable. 

The number change for this resource might not seem like that big of a deal, but removing the barrier of being able to find the 10-digit number online or remembering it will make it more accessible to people. 

Lifeline and other hotlines work. Studies show that hotlines are effective in helping people who are experiencing thoughts of suicide or having a mental health crisis. 66% of people said that the chat intervention feature offered by the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is helpful. 

So what's the issue with 988?

In terms of the function and goal of 988, there is no issue. However, money and resources are lacking to support this initiative. Congress authorized 988 in 2020; however, the funding for crucial things like staffing and infrastructure (phone line and internet connection) were left to the states. Most states haven't yet set aside money for it.

Image of Capitol building in Washington, DC

Most states have yet to allocate funding for 988 operations.

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Only 13 states have legislation that addresses funding for 988. Many states haven't made progress on legislation in the face of the federal mandate. President Joe Biden's 2022 budget request includes funding for Lifeline. However, according to a SAMHSA report, federal and state resources are needed to support the estimated $560 million needed to help local centers prepare and $110 million annually to fund the 988 hotlines. 

Our mental health system is already underfunded and under-resourced. The concern is that local centers will be unable to keep up with the demand for calls. Being routed to another crisis center unfamiliar with local resources is problematic for quick assistance. Calling 911 is not an adequate stand-in for mental health emergencies as you may not connect to someone qualified to address the situation properly. When it comes to mental health events, minutes matter.

What's next for 988?

The 988 hotline will launch on July 16, regardless of whether centers are ready to take on the influx of calls. Even with the potential road bumps, 988 is a good thing and an undeniable step toward addressing the growing mental health crisis in the US. We should expect a time of growth and adaptation in the coming months. 

Considerable time and resources from state and local organizations are needed to help centers prepare for the strain widespread accessibility brings. Hopefully, 988 is only the beginning. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.