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CALL 988: Everything you need to know about the new national mental health hotline

The new 988 'Suicide & Crisis Lifeline' will connect individuals, experiencing any mental health crisis to a qualified mental health practitioner, nationwide
UPDATED JUL 18, 2022
A new mental health hotline is being launched called 9-8-8 (Getty Images)
A new mental health hotline is being launched called 9-8-8 (Getty Images)

In the US, there is a new option for those who need assistance with a mental health crisis. They just have to dial 9-8-8 or send a text message to that number and get the help they require. This service starts on Saturday, July 23.
The new 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, which has three digits, is intended to be a memorable and rapid number that connects individuals who are contemplating suicide or experiencing any other type of mental health crisis to a qualified mental health practitioner.


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Xavier Becerra, the secretary of the federal Department of Health and Human Services, said, "If you are willing to turn to someone in your moment of crisis, 988 will be there. 988 won't be a busy signal, and 988 won't put you on hold. You will get help."

The new number's main objective is to make it simpler for people to contact counsellors for assistance. This launch is also seen by lawmakers and mental health activists as a chance to change the mental health care system and make treatment freely available nationwide. To support the 988 system, the Biden administration has spent more than $400 million on improving crisis centers and other mental health services.
For a few years, the concept for '988' has been under development. A bipartisan bill to establish this hotline to address any mental health emergency was signed into law by President Donald Trump in 2020. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and the Department of Veterans Affairs are all participating in the initiative.

Why not just call 911?

Currently, most people who have a mental health emergency, call 911. The issue with it is that mental health requirements were not considered when 911 was designed. Callers either get hung up in a chaotic emergency department where they must wait for hours or even days to receive care, or they have to deal with police enforcement, which may result in tragedy or trauma.

Advocates for mental health are hoping that 988 will establish itself as a well-known, secure, and superior substitute. Psychologist Benjamin Miller, the president of Well Being Trust, said, "Unlike other medical emergencies, mental health crises overwhelmingly result in a law enforcement response." If you look at the data from the police, about 20% of their total staff time is spent responding to and transporting individuals who are experiencing a mental health crisis. " More than 2 million people with major mental illness were booked in jail just last year for offenses. Miller also noted that individuals with mental illness have been victims of roughly a quarter of fatal police shootings in recent years.

One of them was Miles Hall. The 23-year-old had a mental breakdown outside of his California house and was shot dead by the cops. According to his mother, Taun Hall, who founded the Miles Hall Foundation to promote mental health reform, Miles suffered from schizoaffective disorder. "He was just a great kid. He'd walk into a room, and he'd have this infectious smile. He was just a beautiful soul," said Mrs. Hall. According to her, he was never violent, even when he was experiencing delusions or hallucinations, according to her.
When Miles had a mental breakdown on June 2, 2019, his family phoned 911 in the hopes of getting him into an ambulance and a hospital. Instead, when cops arrived at their home, he was shot and killed in the middle of the road instead of getting assistance. "Miles was shot four times," says Mrs. Hall. The initiative behind 988 aims to eventually decrease these sorts of encounters with police enforcement and link those who need assistance with immediate assistance. The country-wide expansion of mental emergency response teams is part of a longer-term initiative.

Callers can reach experienced counselor by dialing 988.

The existing network of more than 200 regional crisis call centers will be accessible to individuals via the 988 lifelines. The 10-digit number 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline will still be in operation, but calls will now go to 988 number instead.
Those seeking help will be put in touch with a certified counselor at the nearest crisis center when they dial or even text the number. Calls are sent to one of 16 backup crisis centers around the nation if the local center is too busy to react immediately. The majority of individuals who contact the current National Suicide Prevention Lifeline find that the call itself is a successful intervention and in most cases can prevent a suicide attempt.
Charles Ingoglia, the CEO of the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, said, "We know that close to 90% of people who call get what they need from the phone call." Trained counselors at the lifeline will attempt to put the remaining 10% of callers in touch with the care they may need, whether that be further support or in-person assistance.

988 could help create better on-site help

More states are beginning to increase their ability to provide immediate on-the-ground mental health care to those who call in a crisis as they get ready for the launch of 988. Inseparable's senior vice president for advocacy and policy, Angela Kimball, had the good fortune to see firsthand what effective treatment can be like in times of mental health crisis.
A significant manic episode of Kimball's bipolar kid occurred in 2017. He was 32 years old at the time, and he was a resident of Portland, Oregon. Kimball recalled the incident. Her son had taken off all the kitchen drawers and had smashed the stove with a sledgehammer. "He was talking about how soap was poison and how he felt like he was being watched," Kimball added.
A mobile crisis team was summoned to her son's home after Kimball contacted the neighborhood crisis center. As Kimball recalls, they came in and talked to her son kindly and respectfully. Kimball claims that her son went to a nearby crisis stabilization facility voluntarily, and there he received immediate medical attention. This type of crisis intervention happens very rarely. To rectify this, the 988 hotline was put in place to facilitate such on-site care during a crisis.
Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, the HHS assistant secretary for SAMHSA, said in a statement: "Over time, the vision for 988 is to have additional crisis services available in communities across the country, much the way emergency medical services work."

988 will be supported by federal funds

The current suicide prevention lifeline has shown rising usage since it was introduced in 2005. Local call centers, however, got relatively little federal assistance up until recently. "They've been operating on a shoestring for many, many years," says John Draper, the executive director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. In recent years, a lot of centers have closed due to a lack of funding. The lifeline received 3.6 million calls, chats, and messages in 2021, according to the HHS. However, according to a SAMHSA report from 2021, the existing system can only reply to 85% of calls, 56% of messages, and 30% of chats.
According to health experts' projections, in the first full year following the launch of 988, the number of calls, chats, and messages will at least treble. The federal government has made large investments in the network to be ready for this increase in demand. Ingoglia, of the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, said: "Earlier this year, Congress finally started appropriating additional dollars to provide support to call centers so that they could hire dedicated staff to work on the 988 number."
According to a statement from the HHS, the Biden leadership has allocated $432 million ($24 million more) toward increasing the capacity of local and backup contact centers and providing related services, including a subnetwork for Spanish speakers. "A number of centers are [now] being funded in ways that they've never received funds before, so it's very encouraging," Draper says. The backup centers' capacity has been increased, and the centers have been able to add more employees. Draper claims that he has already noticed a difference in the lifeline's capacity to assist individuals who call for help.

The beginning of a new era?

Ingoglia called this the beginning of a new story. He said that "it's going to continue to require investment at the federal level, at the state level, at the local level, to make sure that this reaches its potential." But it will also require major state-level financing in addition to federal funds to make 988 fully functioning and able to answer every phone in a timely manner. The 2020 statute permits states to enact legislation that would permanently finance 988 and related mental health programs by adding a modest tax to cellular bills. (That strategy is also employed to assist the 911 services.) However, just four states have done this thus far, and only two more are working on legislation.

In a recent study conducted by the nonprofit research organization Rand Corp. of 180 public health authorities from throughout the US, 51% of respondents claimed they were not involved in creating a strategic plan for 988. And just 16% of respondents claimed to have made a budget to cover 988 operations.
Lauren Conaboy, the vice president of national policy at Centrestone, is optimistic that when the number goes live, states will gradually begin passing laws to ultimately better support 988. This would entail funding programs like the crisis stabilization unit and mobile crisis team that assisted the Kimball family in Oregon, as well as other mental health treatments, such as addiction treatment.

"The transition to 988 has come to represent a once-in-a-generation opportunity to revisit and reconceptualize how crisis services are resourced and delivered in communities across the country," says Colleen Carr, director of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention at Education Development Center. The national system for responding to mental health crises has to be improved, according to SAMHSA's Delphin-Rittmon. Advocates for mental health are enthusiastic about 988, despite the sluggish progress in many states.


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Becky Stoll, the vice president for crisis and disaster management at Centerstone, said, "We've got to get the training wheels on it and get it out of the garage and start pedaling, knowing that this is a process." We can keep maturing it and getting it towards being adequately capable in all areas."