The new 988 hotline is now 911 for mental health emergencies

Quick help for suicidal thoughts and other mental health emergencies is now as easy as 9-8-8.

The United States’ first three-digit mental health crisis hotline goes live Saturday. It’s designed to be as easy to remember and use as 911, but instead of a dispatcher sending the police, fire or paramedics, 988 will connect callers to trained mental health counselors.

The federal government has provided more than $280 million to help states create systems that will do much more, including mobile mental health crisis teams that can be sent to people’s homes and emergency mental health centers, similar with urgent care clinics that treat physical aches and pains.

“This is one of the most exciting things that has happened” in mental health care, said Dr. Brian Hepburn, a psychiatrist who heads the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors.

Hepburn warns that when the 988 launches, it won’t be like “flipping a switch.” It will take a few years for us to be able to reach everyone across the country.”

Some states already have comprehensive mental health crisis systems, but others have a long way to go. And widespread shortages of mental health professionals are expected to slow their ability to expand services.

A RAND Corp. survey. published last month found that fewer than half of state or regional public health officials were confident they were ready for 988, which is expected to generate a flood of calls.

Nearly 60% said that call center workers had specialized training in suicide prevention; half said they had mobile crisis response teams available 24/7 with licensed counselors; and less than a third had emergency mental health care units.

The 988 system will be based on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, an existing network of more than 200 crisis centers nationwide staffed by counselors who answer millions of calls each year — about 2.4 million in 2020. Calls to the old helpline, 1-800-273-8255, will continue to go through 988 locally.

“If we can get 988 to work like 911 … lives will be saved,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra.

Sending paramedics for heart attacks and police for crimes makes sense — but not for psychiatric emergencies, mental health advocates say. Calls to 911 for those crises often lead to violent encounters with law enforcement and trips to jail or crowded emergency rooms, where suicidal people can wait days for treatment.

The 988 system “is a real opportunity to get things right,” said Hannah Wesolowski of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Sustained funding will be needed. According to the National Academy of State Health Policy, four states have passed laws to set telecommunications rates to support 988, and many more are working on the issue.

A desperate phone call to a Utah state senator in 2013 helped spark the idea of ​​a three-digit mental health crisis line.

Senator Daniel Thatcher says a good friend sought his help after taking his suicidal son to an emergency room, only to be told by a doctor to come back if the boy hurt himself.

Thatcher struggled with depression and at the age of 17, he also considered suicide. He knew that desperate people in crisis may lack the tools to seek help or to remember the 10-digit national suicide helpline.

Thatcher found that many of the crisis lines within the state of Utah went straight to police dispatchers or voicemail. He wondered why there was no 911 service for mental health, and the idea received national attention after he mentioned it to longtime Senator Orrin Hatch.

In 2020, Congress passed the bill that established the 3-digit number of the crisis, and then-President Donald Trump signed it into law.

Thatcher’s mother was a nurse and knew where to help. He says the 988 has the potential to make it so easy for others.

“If you get help, you live. It really is that simple,” Thatcher said.

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