The 988 suicide prevention hotline just launched. But are states prepared?

The new, three-digit “988” National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number officially launched on Saturday, July 16. Anyone witnessing or experiencing a mental health crisis can call, text or chat the easy-to-remember number, similar to dialing 911 in an emergency.

But not all areas of the United States are ready to handle calls to 988, which connects those who may be having suicidal thoughts or other mental health emergencies to trained counselors. The hotline is a national network of more than 180 local, independent and state-funded crisis centers equipped with staff trained to help people who are experiencing a suicidal crisis.

Until now, the three-digit shortcut — designed to make it easier to call for help than dialing the full 1-800-273-TALK number — was available in some parts of the U.S., and it should be available throughout the country after its launch this weekend.

A cyclist rides past a suicide prevention sign on a protective fence.
A cyclist rides past a suicide prevention sign on a protective fence in New York on the walkway of the George Washington Bridge leading to New Jersey, Jan. 12, 2022. (Reuters/Mike Segar)

However, some health care professionals fear that not every state will be prepared to take the calls.

According to the National Academy for State Health Policy (NASHP), only 21 states have enacted legislation to support the rollout of 988 — laws that would help to fund more staff and help integrate 988 into existing crisis call systems, among other necessary tools for success. While low, it’s a significant increase on the four states that had enacted legislation by February.

The 988 shortcut was approved in 2020, when then-President Donald Trump signed the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act. The FCC then adopted rules stipulating that “Calls to 988 will be directed to 1-800-273-TALK, which will remain operational during and after the 988 transition.”

The federal government has provided more than $280 million to help states set up 988, including mobile mental health crisis teams that can travel to people’s homes and emergency mental health centers in times of need. But it’s up to states to fully implement the new number.

An individual contemplates dialing on a cellphone.
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images.

Kelly Troyer, a mental health advocate at the National Alliance of Mental Illness in Charleston, S.C., told Yahoo News in February: “Our [988] plan is going to be active. Is it going to be fully staffed? Are we going to have two call centers? I’m not sure, and that’s the scary part.”

“Imagine if you call 911 and you’re having a heart attack, and no one answers or it says you're the 10th caller in line or whatever. I mean, you don't call it just for the hell of it,'' Troyer said.

“You call it because you need help. And so when someone is reaching out who is in a crisis and they’re brave enough to reach out for help, we definitely want someone to be able to answer in a short amount of time who is trained, so it can save lives.”

Experts say that fast access to the new 988 shortcut is important because many cases of self-harm are from people who make high-risk decisions impulsively.

A thumb hovers over a cellphone in the dark.
A man using a cellphone in New Orleans, in August 2019. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane, File)

“For a lot of people, it's pretty spontaneous, and particularly for younger people, and if you can just get through that period,” David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, told Yahoo News in June for a story about firearms and suicide.

Hemenway explained that studies have shown that some people who have attempted suicide made the decision in less than five minutes, while others said it took them less than an hour.

Mental health in the U.S. is only getting worse, according to the 2022 State of Mental Health In America report from Mental Health America, which found that an estimated 11.4 million adults have serious suicidal thoughts.

Suicide is the 12th most common cause of death in the United States, figures from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention show. In 2020 alone, nearly 46,000 Americans died by suicide.