New national mental health hotline launches Saturday. What to know about 988.

988 is designed to make it easier for callers to get services offered via the traditional 10-digit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which will still be active


Abraham Gutman
The Philadelphia Inquirer

WASHINGTON — Calling for help in a mental health crisis will now be simple as remembering a new three-digit hotline.

The 988 crisis number goes live nationwide on Saturday, designed to make it easier to get the services currently offered through the 10-digit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number — 1-800-273-8255 (1-800-273-TALK). That line will still be active.

The launch of the new number has been two years in the making. Still, some say many states are not prepared. Others see a catalyst to bolster America's response to crises and spur more investment in community mental health resources.

People should call 988 if they are experiencing any mental or behavioral crisis. A trained counselor will listen and provide assistance.
People should call 988 if they are experiencing any mental or behavioral crisis. A trained counselor will listen and provide assistance.

Either way, 988 is officially launching. Here is what you need to know.

A new mental health emergency number launches in July. Some hope 988 is a catalyst for a bigger change

What is 988?

The new three-digit number is a shorter, more memorable version of the current 10-digit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255 (1-800-273-TALK). Proponents hope that a national three-digit number will allow people to seek help in mental health crises as readily as they dial 911 in other emergencies.

What happens when you call 988?

People should call 988 if they are experiencing any mental or behavioral crisis, regardless of whether they are thinking of harming themselves. A trained counselor will listen and provide assistance.

The majority of calls to crisis lines get resolved on the phone, according to Dale Adair, chief psychiatric officer at the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services. "The person taking the call is able to help the person develop a safety plan," Adair said in an interview last month. "It's really about instilling hope."

For the calls where a conversation is not enough, the counselor can help the caller connect with resources. Those could include dispatching a mental health crisis response mobile units (in areas where those are available), referring to care in the community, or transferring the call to 911.

Who will answer 988 calls?

Calls to the new hotline will feed into an existing network of call centers that respond to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. 

Not all calls get answered within the state they are placed. In May, nearly 1-in-3 calls to the lifeline nationally were rerouted out of the caller's state. Pennsylvania sent 17% of its calls out-of-state while New Jersey sent 25%.

988 will rely on national backup centers to field calls that don't get a response within state.

Are states and call centers ready for the launch?

It depends — both on the state and the public response to the launch of 988.

The law that created 988, the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020, instructed states to pass legislation to ensure long-term funding for the service. But according to the National Academy for State Health Policy, by June 29 only 21 states enacted 988 funding laws.

The federal government has been giving out grant funding for states to increase their call center capacity, with $150 million for the project included in the recently enacted Bipartisan Safer Communities Act.

Firearm suicides outpace homicides. Experts say the Senate gun bill could help.

Supporters hope that 988 will lead to more callers, the question is how fast that happens.


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Abby Grasso, the executive director of the National Alliance of Mental Illness in Montgomery County, said the new line could save lives but that the implementation requires adequate funding.

"Our system is already extraordinarily overstretched with a lack of funding for not only mental health services, but paying staff adequate wages to keep people in jobs that are really hard," she said.

If call volume increases quickly after the launch, states might find themselves unprepared — without the infrastructure to answer calls and without the tools to respond to callers' needs.

"There are going to be bumps," Grasso said.

Are other crisis lines going away?

No. July 16 is the official launch date of 988. That means that any person dialing or texting the number should get a response. However, the current 10-digit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number (1-800-273-8255) will remain operational for now — and so will county crisis hotlines.


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