Health & Human Services - Jul 06, 2022

New 988 Suicide Hotline: Hope or Hype?

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is getting an upgrade. On July 16, 2022, the Lifeline will change from its previous number (800-273-8255) to just 3 digits: 988. Although the old number will remain available for calls, individuals may call, text, or chat 988, where they will be connected with trained counselors.1

Additionally, if functioning as intended, operators will be able to counsel callers 24 hours a day and dispatch specially trained responders, hopefully reducing armed law enforcement interventions and emergency department (ED) visits.

“Having a 3-digit number sends the message that mental health emergencies are as important and require the same level of response as other types of health emergencies, and it makes it easier for clinicians to counsel their patients on how to access emergency mental health care,” Margie Balfour, MD, PhD, chief of quality and clinical innovation at Connections Health Solutions and associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Arizona, told Psychiatric Times™.

Currently, when individuals call the Lifeline, they hear a greeting and then a list of options: “Press 1 to connect to the Veterans Crisis Line” and “Press 2 (“Oprima dos”) for the Spanish subnetwork.” Callers who do not choose either of these options are routed to a local Lifeline crisis center based on their area code. If the local center is unable to take their call, they are rerouted to another center within the network.2

The Lifeline’s network has more than 200 crisis centers in place. From its inception in 2005 through 2020, the Lifeline has received 20,478,698 calls.3 After the past few years of crisis, 988’s introduction may prove an opportunity for restructuring mental health emergency response beyond suicide.

“Far more than just a rebrand of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the implementation of 988 provides an opportunity to reform and improve our nation’s crisis response system,” Christine Yu Moutier, MD, chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, told Psychiatric Times™. She added that 988 “is an opportunity to reimagine crisis response and increase the involvement of trained mental health professionals who are equipped to address the needs of a person in crisis.”

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