Health & Human Services - Jul 06, 2022

A Look At The 988 Soft Launch


On July 16, 2022, the United States will “soft launch” a new emergency number for behavioral health emergencies. The 988 number will provide 24/7 access to crisis counseling for anyone experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis via phone, text, or chat. The creation of 988 is a key advance in developing a behavioral health crisis system comparable to the police, fire, and ambulance systems we take for granted for other types of emergencies.

The purpose of this column is to provide practical guidance for Psychiatric Times™ readers about the 988 soft launch. What does it mean? What doesn’t it mean? What should you tell your patients and their families? What should you tell your colleagues and staff? What is the best way to take advantage of this new opportunity and contribute to the successful development of crisis systems in your community?

Why a Soft Launch?

A soft launch is undertaken when an organization wants to roll out a new service gradually over time. In the case of 988, its creators want to ensure the infrastructure and staffing are in place to handle the call volume, which is expected to increase as the public becomes aware of this new resource. They also need the ability to continue work on various technical details and to address new issues as they arise. For these reasons, the messaging and advertising about 988 thus far has been somewhat limited, with more aggressive marketing planned as the system matures.

988 and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

The new 988 number connects to the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPL).1 Some background knowledge about NSPL helps in understanding the 988 system. The NSPL began in 2005 as a suicide hotline with the goal of bringing easy access to a standard level of evidenced-based suicide crisis counseling via a nationwide toll-free number (1-800-273-TALK). The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has supported this network with small amounts of funding, certification standards, and technical assistance via its partner Vibrant Emotional Health. NSPL call centers range from small volunteer-based organizations focused on suicide prevention to comprehensive crisis lines that include NSPL services as part of a larger service array.

Over the past 15 years, the NSPL has grown to a network of about 200 call centers across the United States, including a Veterans Crisis Line, live Spanish language services, translation services for more than 250 other languages, and capability for chat and text. (The NSPL/988 text function is unrelated to the 741741 Crisis Text Line.)

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