The new 988 hotline is 911 for mental health emergencies

In this Sunday, Aug. 11, 2019, photo, a man uses a cell phone in New Orleans. Getting help for suicidal thoughts and other mental health emergencies could soon be as easy as 9-8-8. The United States’ first national three-digit mental health crisis hotline went live on Saturday, July 16, 2022. Credit: AP Photo/Jenny Kane, File

Getting help for suicidal thoughts and other mental health emergencies could soon be as easy as 9-8-8.

The United States’ first national three-digit mental health crisis hotline launched Saturday. It’s designed to be as easy to remember and use as 911, but instead of a dispatcher dispatching police, firefighters 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 to urgent care clinics that treat physical pain.

“It’s one of the most exciting things that’s happened” in mental health care, said Dr. Brian Hepburn, a psychiatrist who heads the National Association of State Directors of Mental Health Programs.

Hepburn warns that when 988 starts, it won’t be like “flipping a switch. It will take a few years before we can reach everyone across the country.”

Some countries already have comprehensive mental health crisis systems in place, but others have a long way to go. A widespread shortage of mental health professionals is expected to slow their ability to expand services.

A RAND Corp. study released last month found that fewer than half of state or regional public health officials are confident they are ready for 988, which is expected to generate an influx of calls.

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

The 988 system will build on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, an existing network of more than 200 crisis centers across the country staffed by counselors who answer millions of calls each year – about 2.4 million in 2020. Calls to the old helpline line, 1-800-273-8255, will still go through even with a 988 in place.

“If we can make 988 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 about these crises often result in 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 do things right,” said Hannah Wesolowski of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Ongoing funding will be required. According to the National Academy of State Health Policy, four states have passed laws to impose telecommunications fees in support of 988, and many more are working on the issue.

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

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

Thatcher struggled with depression and, at 17, also contemplated suicide. He knew that desperate people in crisis may not have the resources to seek help or remember the 10-digit national suicide hotline number.

Thatcher found that many of Utah’s crisis lines go straight to police dispatchers or voicemail. He wondered why there wasn’t a 911 service for mental health, and the idea gained national attention after he mentioned it to longtime Sen. Orrin Hatch.

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

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

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

America’s 988 suicide and crisis helpline launched on Saturday

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