In 2020, President Trump signed a bipartisan bill into law to create 988 to respond to all mental health crises. 988 is the three-digit number to call when in need of non-emergency mental health situations and issues. New Yorkers have been able to dial 988 to connect with an organization called “NYC Well” for such assistance and will continue to be able to do so. Now, Americans in all states will also be able to dial 988 to connect to the Suicide & Crisis response network rather than dialing the traditional 10-digit number. Just like with 911, you can call or text 988.

How Does 988 Work?

The aim of the expansion initiative of 988 is to attend to the needs of those in need of mental health assistance without needing police intervention. The initiative forms part of a long-term strategy to ramp up mental-health emergency response teams and mental health crisis services around the United States.

988 is a joint initiative between the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Mental health advocates are hailing the lifeline network as a big step forward, especially at a time when the number of mental health sufferers is increasing dramatically. $400 million has been spent on gearing up mental health services and crisis centers to support the 988 system.

Benefits

The federal government will start phasing out Lifeline’s current long phone number — 1-800-273-8255— replacing it with the easy-to-remember and easy-to-dial 988. It also means people experiencing a mental health crisis no longer call 911 for this type of assistance. After all, 911 was not designed to meet mental health needs.

As previously mentioned, New Yorkers will still connect with NYC Well. However, in other states, callers will connect to a local call center which will then connect them immediately to a mental health professional rather than EMTs or law enforcement officers, people who are not being trained or comfortable when called on to de-escalate emergency mental health or behavioral health situations.

The intention is to provide mental-health help fast, instead of having callers end up in busy emergency rooms, waiting long hours and even days for care. Also, interacting with the police can often increase tensions and escalates matters, leading to unintended serious consequences, including fatal shootings or patients being jailed.

How it works

It is important to note that the 10-digit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number — 1-800-273-8255 — will stay active. However, callers will be rerouted to the 988 dialing code when they call the 10-digit number. 988 will then connect callers to a network of over 200 local crisis call centers around the nation.

A text can also be sent to 988. When a call or text comes in, it will be connected to a crisis center-trained counselor in the caller or texter’s locality. If the crisis center is busy and can’t respond immediately, the caller will be connected to one of the 16 backup centers around the country. Organizers claim that there will not be a busy signal and callers will not be put on hold. The long-term goal for 988 is to offer additional crisis centers and services in communities that will operate the same way that emergency medical services operate.

Effectiveness

In 2021, the current National Suicide Prevention Lifeline received a combination of 3.6 million calls, chats, and texts, as reported by the HHS. The system, according to SAMHSA, could only provide a response to 85 percent of the calls, 30 percent of the chats, and 56 percent of the texts. The aim of growing the 988 mental health crisis response network is to increase those response rates. It has been projected that once 988 is live, calls, texts, and chats will double in the first 12 months.

In 2021, the current National Suicide Prevention Lifeline received a combination of 3.6 million calls, chats, and texts, as reported by the HHS. The system, according to SAMHSA, could only provide a response to 85 percent of the calls, 30 percent of the chats, and 56 percent of the texts. The aim of growing the 988 mental health crisis response network is to increase those response rates. It has been projected that once 988 is live, calls, texts, and chats will double in the first 12 months.

In up to 90 percent of cases, people get the help they need on the call and don’t require extra help. 988 calls work as an intervention. The robust network of trained mental health counselors and support personnel being built will meet the needs of the remaining 10 percent who do require further assistance.

While that assistance will be provided initially telephonically, it will result in face-to-face meetings when necessary. Consequently, a number of states have begun building up the capacity to respond to on-the-ground mental health emergencies.

Additional Information: New Three-Digit Suicide Prevention Line, 988, Goes Live July 16, 2022 – Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services

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