The Margin: National Suicide Prevention Line is shortening its number to 988: ‘We are treating mental health as a priority’

Starting Saturday, July 16, Americans will be able to call a new three-digit number if and when they are having a mental health crisis.

The new 988 hotline, created through the bipartisan National Suicide Hotline Designation Act, will transition what was formerly the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. The hotline is for people who are experiencing mental health issues, including suicidal thoughts, and can be both called or texted.

“988 is more than a number, it is a message: we’re there for you. Through this and other actions, we are treating mental health as a priority and putting crisis care in reach for more Americans,” U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a press release. “There is still much work to do. But what matters is that we’re launching, 988 will be live. We are looking to every governor and every state in the nation to do their part to make this a long-term success.”

So who is on the other line when a person calls 988?

Through a network of over 200 local, state and national call centers throughout the country, people suffering from a mental health crisis will be connected to “trained crisis counselors” for whatever help is necessary.

By making the number shorter, similar to the emergency contact services of 911, some people may be more likely to call during moments of mental angst than if they had to remember to look up the 10-digit number that was previously used. The 10-digit current hotline number will also remain available after the 988 hotline launches, but will reroute to the 988 call centers.

All telephone service and text providers in the country, as well as U.S. territories American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, are required by the FCC to activate 988 no later than July 16, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services announced.

Additionally, the 988 phone and text line will operate 24/7, much like the emergency 911 line.

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Some people have criticized previous versions of the U.S.’s suicide prevention hotlines over potentially long wait times for callers. The move to this new model aims to remedy that issue by directing people’s calls to local call centers first, and then to national ones if there is a high volume of calls.

“If the local crisis center is unable to take the call, the caller will be automatically routed to a national backup crisis center,” the 988 information center webpage says.

Six in 10 respondents from a 2019 Universal Health Services

poll (aged 44 and younger) say they have either suffered from mental illness, or care about someone who has suffered from mental illness in the past 12 months. 

In 2020, suicide was the second leading cause of death for people ages 10-14 and 25-34, according to the Centers of Diseases Control and Prevention — the U.S. had one death by suicide every 11 minutes in 2020.

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