Story at a glance
- In 2020, the federal government signed the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act into law.
- That law requires every state in the country to have 988 available for anyone to call or text for suicide prevention support.
- The new three-digit number must be active by July 16, 2022, but most states still don’t have laws in place to help fund the new phone line.
A new three-digit number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is scheduled to be live across the country this summer, expected to support text messages and phone calls, but most states are falling behind on implementing it.
In 2020 under former President Donald Trump, the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act was signed into law and requires every state in the country to implement the necessary telecommunications systems to allow anyone to call or text 988 to access the U.S. suicide hotline. States are required to have that number available to the public starting on July 16, 2022.
The National Institute of Mental Health found in 2019 that suicide was the 10th leading cause of death overall in the U.S., claiming over 47,000 people’s lives. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline answered more than 2.1 million calls in 2020, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
The government sought to establish a shorter, universal phone number for people to access suicide prevention support.
However, despite states having a two-year notice to prepare for the new three-digit number to go into effect, only four states have implemented laws that include fee measures to pay for the new service, according to Reuters.
Virginia, Nevada, the state of Washington and Colorado currently have laws in place to have 988 in working order by July 2022.
In Washington state, legislation was enacted last year to help fund 988 through a 24 cents per line fee on residents’ monthly phone bill. The state expects that to bring in about $46 million annually to cover most of the cost of expanding the state’s suicide call center.
In order to help states with the implementation of 988, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services introduced a $177 million fund to strengthen and expand the existing hotline network operations and telephone infrastructure. An additional $105 million was earmarked to help states increase necessary staffing across the country’s crisis call centers.
Though that may help, some states are still struggling to get processes off the ground to get 988 active.
Hannah Wesolowski, a spokesperson for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), told Reuters that, “in some places, you're probably in good shape. You could call 988 and there are going to be mobile crisis teams and a pretty robust crisis infrastructure. But in other places, good luck."
Many times, calls received by the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline are routed to backup crisis centers connected to the national network because local centers can’t handle the volume. That can result in long wait times for callers seeking lifesaving help.
"When calls are re-routed to centers out-of-state, callers in crisis often wait two to three times longer, receive fewer linkages to effective local care, and are more likely to abandon their calls," said a report by the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, according to Reuters.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) noted last year that with the implementation of a new, shorter phone number, crisis centers should expect higher call volume and prepare with more resources and personnel to answer phones.
“There’s no time to waste. State leaders and lawmakers need to act now to provide sustainable funding and support to ensure the crisis centers and services in their communities are prepared to meet increased demand, and so all residents have access to timely, effective crisis care,” said Taylor Kleffel, AFSP manager of state policy.
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