Story at a glance
- The national mental health emergency hotline is getting a three digit number: 988.
- The new, shorter number is easier to remember and more accessible, but it could lead to an influx of phone calls.
- The old 1-800 number will still work.
- A therapist and a suicide prevention researcher weigh in.
On July 16, the mental health emergency hotline gets a new three-digit number — 988 — in a change that is aimed at making these services more accessible. The existing number, 1-800-273-8255 that gained attention as the title of a song by Logic, will still be functional. This change has been in the works for months, but several states may not be ready to handle the potential increase in demand and may still be lacking the funds to staff local call centers.
The hotline, officially named the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, “provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in the United States,” according to the website. It was launched in 2005 by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and Vibrant Emotional Health. The lifeline has received more than 20 million calls from people in distress between 2005 and 2020.
Mental health professionals are welcoming the shorter 988 number.
“I believe that this is an amazing and timely change. Mental health in this country, particularly for youth has been in a state of crisis for the past few years as a result of the pandemic,” said therapist Megan Green in an email to Changing America. “As a mental health clinician I will be glad to be able to share with clients this new easily remembered resource.”
The lifeline is the first step to use in a crisis, said suicide prevention researcher Kelly Green at the University of Pennsylvania. Ultimately, the shorter number will be a good thing. Green notes.
“That’s good for people in crisis,” Green said. “It can be difficult to think clearly, difficult to remember things that we know when we’re feeling calm, when we’re in crisis.”
The only change will be the new three-digit number, and all calls will route to local call centers per usual. However, with the new number experts expect that the volume of calls may increase, which could create challenges for call centers and people who rely on the service.
Not all call centers across the country may have adequate funding and staffing to meet the immediate demand. Callers may experience wait times, even more so than they already do with the existing services. Some states are implementing a charge for each phone line in monthly bills to help cover the costs of running call centers. Federal funding tried to help jump-start the preparations, but a recent report from SAMHSA estimates that continued partnership between the federal and state governments will be necessary.
National backup call centers to take on the potential extra burden are being set up, but they will be taking calls nationally, said Green. The challenge will be to make sure that there are resources at the state and local level to direct people to.