Now, where to call for help in a mental health crisis is clearer than ever. All you need to do is dial 988 from anywhere in the country.
This three-digit number, which will be implemented on July 16, will link you a trained counselor who can offer confidential support to people in crisis or emotional distress. It's built on the old National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number—1-800-273-8255—which will still work. But 988 is a lot easier to remember and advocates who have had a stake in creating the new system also see the 988 number as a way to reimagine the country's response to mental health crises.
"Just as we know to call 911 for medical emergencies, now it's 988 for emotional crises," says Bob Gebbia, CEO of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
The need for this support is great; only 46 percent of Americans over the age of 18 who are living with a mental health condition received treatment in the past year. Suicide is currently the 12th leading cause of death in America, and men die by suicide almost four times more often than women do.
What happens when you call 988?
When you call 988, be prepared to get an automated menu at first. That routes you to a crisis center in your area based on your area code, where you'll be connected with a trained counselor. "The counselors know how to de-escalate that crisis, make a person feel more comfortable, and then link them to more ongoing support," Gebbia says.
How is this different than calling 911?
Counselors aren't automatically linked to a law enforcement response (although they may need to contact law enforcement if someone's life is immediately at risk). "Law enforcement has become the de-facto crisis response system...and that has to change," Gebbia says. Mental Health America explains that a law enforcement response to a mental health or substance abuse crisis can end up in "confrontations with law enforcement which have tragic outcomes," or can end up landing in emergency rooms or inpatient psychiatric facilities or even the criminal justice system unnecessarily, which may be damaging to the person and doesn't help with a therapeutic outcome.
In the future, Gebbia adds, "we are advocating for the use of mobile crisis teams, with trained mental health professionals and also to have alternatives to taking people to emergency departments." Some communities are experimenting with these already.
The idea for the new number, 988, is that people get the help they need from people who are trained to provide it, as immediately as possible. And by talking with someone familiar with their community, they are also linked with local resources who can continue to help. The response and wait time will likely be different everywhere, as each state's crisis centers and their capacities vary. While advocates of 988 are optimistic, there are concerns that an increased volume of calls to the new number and limited resources in communities and states could provide challenges to the rollout.
Is 988 only for people contemplating suicide?
"This number is for all mental health crises," Gebbia explains. Call if you're struggling with anything—anxiety, depression, substance use, suicidal thoughts. It doesn't even have to be you who is struggling. "The service is available to a family member or friend who may be saying, 'I have someone who's struggling and are resistant to call. I'm calling on their behalf. What do I do? How can I help them?'"
"We're hoping that people will now see 988 as an opportunity to get the help they need. About half the people who die by suicide are not in any kind of treatment at the time of death," Gebbia says. "We want to see that gap close, because it's a chance to really save lives."
If you’d like to become more familiar with how to help people in a crisis, find out what the Mental Health First Aid program is all about, and how it can help you be more comfortable talking about mental health with others.
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