Just Dial 9-8-8: A Herculean Effort to Simplify the Suicide Lifeline Number Is Finally Paying Off

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A collaborative, three-year effort to make mental health assistance more accessible has finally reached the finish line. As of Saturday, July 16, anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts can dial 988 from wherever they are and immediately be connected with a mental health professional.

"If you call 988, you will get not just a live voice but a professional counselor ready to speak to you, to give you some guidance and support, and give you the follow up that you might need," Health and Human Services Sec. Xavier Becerra tells PEOPLE. "The last thing we want is for 988 to be a phone call you make and all of a sudden you find that you're put on hold and get a busy signal."

RELATED: Mental Health Hotline 988 Will Launch Nationwide on July 16

The journey to revamp the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline was a long process — set into motion through a congressional bill enacted in 2020 — that required the cooperation of the Department of Health and Human Services, Federal Communications Commission, and Department of Veterans Affairs.

While switching from a 10-digit lifeline number to an easier three-digit number was a big part of the project's goal, it also sought to "bring together a network of loose call centers so that there would be more cohesion to the system," Becerra says.

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It was that mission to make 988 a universal lifeline on both the front end and back that took time to perfect.

"We've had great partnership with most of the governors working toward making this happen, because at the end of the day, it's still a network of more than 50 different states and territories and tribal governments trying to patch together," Becerra says. "We want you to know that, like 911, 988 will be there for you."

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Since President Joe Biden took office in January 2021, $432 million has been allocated toward creating the newly titled 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline — "about an 18-fold increase over what was available before he came in," according to Becerra. People aren't too worried about the price tag, as it's quite literally the cost of saving lives.

"As I've gone around the country, I've heard the stories. People are crying out," Becerra says of why the 988 lifeline was such a high priority for his department. "We are seeing the numbers of suicide rates and drug overdoses increase dramatically — among adults, but also children."

He continued: "There's a need to do something."

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988, text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741741 or go to 988lifeline.org.