988, the new suicide and crisis lifeline, launches July 16. What to know — and why experts say 'we need a 3-digit number for psychological emergencies'

988 is a new number that connects people to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, where crisis counselors are available 24/7 via call, text or chat to help anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts or any mental health-related distress. (Photo: Getty Creative stock image)
988 is a new number that connects people to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, where crisis counselors are available 24/7 via call, text or chat to help anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts or any mental health-related distress. (Photo: Getty Creative stock image)

988 — a new, easy-to-remember suicide and crisis lifeline in the United States — launches July 16.

"We have a three-digit number for medical emergencies; we need a three-digit number for psychological emergencies — and that’s what this is," John Draper, executive director for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, tells Yahoo Life of 988.

But while it may be tempting to liken 988 to a 911 number for suicide prevention, Draper cautions against the comparison.

"People might haphazardly say it's like the 911 for mental health, but that's only because that's our only frame of reference, historically," Draper says. "My hope is that we'll forget all about 911 when we think about mental health and suicidal crisis over the coming generations."

So, what exactly is 988? Here's what you need to know.

What is 988?

988 is a new number that connects people to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, where crisis counselors are available 24/7 via call, text or chat to help anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts or any mental health-related distress. Though 988 is a new number, it connects to an existing lifeline network of over 200 local call centers that has been around since 2005.

"What we want to do is make it as easy for someone to reach help when they need it as possible," Colleen Carr, director of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention at Education Development Center, tells Yahoo Life. "It's not a new network being established — it's a new way to access that network in a way that's easier to remember."

FCC rules require phone service providers to direct all 988 calls to the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by July 16, but the lifeline's current number — 1-800-273-8255 — won't go away on July 16; people can dial either number and get the same services.

How did it get started?

The bipartisan National Suicide Hotline Designation Act, which assigned the new 988 dialing code to be operated through the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, was passed by Congress and signed into law by former President Donald Trump in 2020. That same year, the U.S. had one death by suicide every 11 minutes, and suicide was the second leading cause of death for people ages 10-14 and 25-34, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Now, more than ever, Kansans and the entire country will benefit from greater access to critical suicide prevention and mental health services," Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), an original co-sponsor of the bill, said in a statement to Yahoo Life. "Designating 988 as a nationwide suicide help and prevention number provides an easy-to-remember and easy-to-access service for people to dial when they need a helping hand. This will be a life-saving resource to help provide a vital mental health service to millions of Americans."

Dialing 988 will direct callers in crisis to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. (Photo: Getty Creative stock photo)
Dialing 988 will direct callers in crisis to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. (Photo: Getty Creative stock photo) (Tirachard via Getty Images)

When should you contact 988?

Draper says there's a wide range of reasons why someone might contact the 988 lifeline. Triggers for a mental health crisis could be anything from the loss of a valued relationship — such as the death of a loved one or a breakup — to the loss of a job, a substance abuse problem that someone may feel helpless to deal with or "any time when a person feels so overwhelmed by their experience [and] their feelings that it impairs their ability to get through day-to-day."

"And crises are typically temporary by nature — so getting through a crisis to the other side of that is really critical," Draper adds.

People can call 988 on behalf of someone they care about, too. Draper says it's not uncommon for the lifeline to receive calls from people concerned about someone else.

"In fact, sometimes people are in such crisis that they're really unable to make the call themselves," he says.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) notes that the suicide and mental health crisis-related services 988 offers are distinct from the public safety purposes of 911, "where the focus is on dispatching Emergency Medical Services, fire and police." While some 988 calls may require 911 emergency services, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website says this accounts for less than 2% of lifeline calls — and when emergency services are involved, more than half of those emergency dispatches occur with the caller's consent.

"The overwhelming majority of time, having a thought about suicide in no way means the person is going to kill themselves; it means that a person is having more pain than they know how to deal with," Draper says. "And that's why it's so important they reach out to us — so we can help them deal with that, and we can give them many other options."

What happens when you contact 988?

Calls to 988 will be routed to the caller's local lifeline crisis center based on their area code, where they will be connected with a trained crisis counselor who will listen, provide support and share resources if needed. If the caller's local crisis center can't take the call, the caller will be automatically routed to a national backup crisis center.

While texts to 988 and online chat services are only available in English, 988 phone services will be available in English and Spanish, and Language Line Solutions will provide phone service translations in over 250 additional languages.

Draper says the length of phone calls can vary from a few minutes to an hour, depending on the circumstances, but typically fall in the range of 15 to 20 minutes. The content of those conversations focuses on helping the caller feel heard and understood, and finding a way to move forward.

"When a person is in crisis, it's really, really difficult to see the forest for the trees," Draper says. "However, once you are feeling a little bit more calm, understood, less threatened by the situation, you're able to start thinking more clearly about things that you could do and engage and problem-solve in what we call 'collaborative problem solving' — helping them perhaps work together to create a plan for safety or a plan for coping."

And Draper says the response they've received from people who have used the lifeline indicates that it works — and can save lives.

"When we're following up with people after a call to check on them to see how they're doing, those follow-up calls have also made a difference in keeping people safe," Draper says. "About 80% of the time, people who've received follow-up calls from us have said that those calls made a difference in keeping them safe, and half of them said that they're the reason they're alive. So being there for somebody in that moment of darkness can really be a life-changing event for them."

Are states ready for 988?

A spokesperson for SAMHSA tells Yahoo Life that in 2020 the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline received 3.6 million calls, chats and texts — and they expect that number could double to 6 million or even 12 million within the first full year after the 988 transition.

But some mental health experts in some states worry they don't have the staff and funding to handle the flood of new calls. NBC News reported in June that most states haven't allocated money for 988, and even partial legislation to implement 988 is pending in only 20 states.

"We are at the start of a transition, not the end, and there is still a lot of work to be done," Dr. John Palmieri, acting director of 988 at SAMHSA, says in a statement to Yahoo Life addressing concerns about staff and funding for the 988 rollout. "The Biden-Harris administration has made significant strides in strengthening and expanding the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and we expect 988 will continue to grow and evolve in the coming months, as more states start to step up."

The Biden administration has allocated $282 million toward the transition to 988, with $177 million going toward strengthening and expanding the existing lifeline network and $105 million to build up staffing across states' local crisis call centers.

"The lifeline network of nearly 200 crisis call centers has been massively underfunded and under-resourced since it began in 2005," Palmieri continues. "While this administration has significantly increased funds to support the lifeline, states must do their part to rev up investments, too."

A SAMHSA spokesperson tells Yahoo Life that while staffing needs vary by state, there is an "urgent need" and they encourage anyone interested in working at one of the lifeline's call centers to visit the jobs page.

"You will receive training, so if you are a caring person who wants to help those in crisis, apply today," the jobs page reads.

Draper says that while some states are prepared for 988’s launch on July 16 — and "some less so" — there will be national backup services available that will be "extremely prepared" to handle any overflow from overwhelmed local call centers.

"In the event that [a local call center] is unable to answer the call because they lack the resources, we are providing at the national level backup services — basically a safety net for our frontline local centers that may not be able to answer all the calls," Draper says. "So in the event that the local centers are unable to take those calls or those chats or texts, somebody will be there to take them. It's a matter of holding on, maybe for just a little bit longer, and we'll answer."

Draper says his hope for 988 is that over time it will be seen as "the resource for people who are in mental health crisis."

"For years there has been a public safety response to people who are in a mental health crisis. When you talk about the police and mental illness, there's long been an association between those two, primarily because there has not been a three-digit number for mental health and suicidal crises," Draper says. "Over time, we believe that the overwhelming majority of mental health and suicidal crises will be able to be sufficiently resolved through contacting 988 and the services that we can connect people to, and soon it'll be more of a public health consideration as opposed to a public safety one."

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 911, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. Effective July 16, call 988.

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