The three-digit dialing code for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 988 – will go live for landlines and cellphones across the United States this Saturday, July 16.
The new 988 code will function similarly to 911, connecting anyone who calls it from anywhere in the country. The current number for the Lifeline, 800-273-8255, is in its 18th year of operation and will continue to work after the 988 code is established. Calls to the Lifeline are received at one of the approximately 200 local mental health crisis centers around the country.
The Lifeline was established in 2005 as a partnership between the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) and the Mental Health Association of New York City, a nonprofit now known as Vibrant Emotional Health. The Lifeline claims to have received more than 20 million calls since its establishment, including almost 2.5 million in 2020.
The bill calling for the establishment of a three-digit dialing code for the Lifeline passed Congress and was signed into law by President Donald Trump in 2018, and the FCC designated 988 as the code in 2020. In addition to the phone line, people will be able to text 988 in times of crisis or use the Lifeline’s online chat feature. HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic made the simpler three-digit code even more important.
“As we continue to confront the impact of the pandemic, investing in this critical tool is key to protecting the health and well-being of countless Americans—and saving lives,” Becerra said in a statement. “Giving the states a tool to prevent suicide and support people in crisis is essential to our HHS mission of protecting the health and well-being of everyone in our nation. We know that remembering a three-digit number beats a 10-digit number any day, particularly in times of crisis, and I encourage every state to rev up planning to implement 988 for the sake of saving lives.”
According to HHS, the president’s 2022 budget plus the American Rescue Plan will provide SAMHSA with extra funding of more than $250 million to support the current Lifeline infrastructure and ramp up staffing at crisis centers ahead of the launch. Many of the Lifeline’s local crisis centers are hiring.
Currently, the Lifeline provides services over phone calls in English and Spanish, with translation support for more languages. Texting and online chat services are only available in English. However, according to SAMHSA’s website, expansion plans are in the works for the Lifeline’s texting service.
The new code could be especially helpful to communities of color, according to Louisiana-based mental health advocate Tonja Myles. She said 988 could be a safer alternative for people in crisis who may not want to call 911.
“Historically, when communities of color are in crisis, we don’t call crisis lines,” Myles said in a statement. “We need to tell black people that the crisis line can be trusted; the operators are there to help and treat you as if you are in a crisis, not as if you’re a criminal.”
The 988 launch comes in July, which is National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. Analysis from KFF shows suicide rates are increasing much more quickly among people of color than they are for white Americans. Vibrant Emotional Health addresses the effect the new code could have on communities of color in a recent overview of 988, and claims the three digits are a step forward in health equity.
“For many people with mental health and substance use conditions, particularly people of color and people in the LGBTQ+ community, a law enforcement response to a mental health emergency has ended in tragedy or poor outcomes, including death and incarceration,” reads the Vibrant statement. “Just as current calls to the Lifeline are answered now, calls to 988 will be answered by someone trained in mental health crisis response, who can often resolve the situation by phone, text or chat. The new Lifeline number, 988, holds the promise of an equitable health care response to a health care issue with better outcomes as people receive the services and support they need to remain in their communities and thrive.”
The new Lifeline number, 988, holds the promise of an equitable health care response to a health care issue with better outcomes as people receive the services and support they need to remain in their communities and thrive.
In addition to the Lifeline, which is specifically intended for people in crisis, SAMHSA maintains a National Helpline for people seeking information or treatment referrals for mental health or substance abuse issues. The Helpline’s number is 800-662-4357, and information is also available via text at 435748 or on the Helpline’s website.