People in the US dealing with mental health crises will soon be able to reach help by dialing 988, an emergency hotline similar to 911 but for mental health emergencies only.
The 988 dialing code will become available nationwide for phone and text messages by July 16, 2022, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Online chat services will also be available.
People experiencing mental health-related distress — whether that is depression, thoughts of suicide, mental health or substance use crises, or any other kind of severe emotional distress — can ring or text the line to communicate directly with a trained crisis counselor who can listen to the caller’s concerns, understand their problem, provide support, and share resources.
Equally, people who are concerned about another person’s mental well-being are welcome to contact the hotline for advice.
The move stems from the 2020 legislation that set out to transition the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline from its current 10-digit number — 1-800-273-8255 — to an easy-to-remember three-digit dialing code. The Biden-Harris Administration’s 2022 budget then added $177 million of funding towards strengthening the existing Lifeline network infrastructure and a further $105 million to boost staffing in local crisis call centers.
Once the revamp is complete, the long National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number will still work, but all calls will be put through to the same services as calls to 988.
By simplifying the dialing code and broadening the services available, the switch-over hopes to make mental health help more accessible to people in the US.
“We know that remembering a three-digit number beats a ten-digit number any day, particularly in times of crisis,” Xavier Becerra, the US Health and Human Services secretary, said back in December.
Numerous bits of research has found that mental health around the world has slumped in the past few years. An especially deep drop in mental health was reported in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic saw people deal with loss, uncertainty, economic downturn, and inaccessibility to health care.
While the new 988 hotline is more needed than ever, there are some worries about how it’s being rolled out in certain parts of the country.
A recent survey by the RAND Corporation suggested that some local health authorities are struggling to prepare in terms of financing, staffing, or infrastructure. The researchers interviewed many public health officials responsible for setting up the 988 hotlines and found that many were concerned about the scheme’s preparedness.
“Although mandated at a national level, the launch of 988 will require substantial effort on the part of state and local agencies to ensure sufficient capacity to handle these calls and connect callers with local mental health emergency services if needed,” Stephanie Brooks Holliday, a co-leader of the project and a RAND behavioral scientist, said in a statement in June 2022. “Our findings show much more work needs to be done.”