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New ‘988’ mental health crisis hotline launches Saturday

Resources and staffing are a concern

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Starting Saturday, people in a mental health crisis will be able to call or text 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline). It’ll connect people with mental health counselors 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The Lifeline is a network of over 200 local call centers. If local centers are busy, callers are redirected to a national backup center.

Officials have billed the new number as the “911” for suicide prevention and mental healthcare. It replaces the old National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number — 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). One goal is to reduce the number of mental health crisis calls that go to 911, which often sends people to busy emergency rooms or puts them in contact with law enforcement unprepared to handle the situation — encounters that can be dangerous or deadly for the person in crisis.

It’s been in the works for years: in 2018, Congress directed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to work with the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Veterans Affairs on creating a three-digit code for mental health crises. The FCC voted to finalize the number in 2020 and voted to expand it to texting in fall 2021.

But officials are downplaying the launch over concerns that there aren’t state-level resources and staffing to meet the demand, Politico reported. Under the old program, most calls in many states were routed to the national center. Callers still got care, but a local response tends to be better, experts say. “If they’re not more local to you, within your own state, for example, it’s harder for them to connect to the available services that might be in those communities,” Matthew Wintersteen, an associate professor at Thomas Jefferson University working with the Pennsylvania program, told Politico.

Many states have struggled to get consistent funding for their crisis hotline programs and haven’t expanded the number of people fielding calls. Officials are expecting a surge in calls when the number switches over to the 988 hotline.

The Lifeline is administered by state programs, not the federal government, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said during a press briefing — so the states have to build the support necessary. Still, he said Saturday’s launch is just the start of a transition period.

“If you are willing to turn to someone in your moment of crisis, 988 will be there. 988 won’t be a busy signal, and 988 won’t put you on hold. You will get help,” he said. “That is the aspiration. And it doesn’t happen overnight.”