The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (now the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline) has been functioning since 2005, but after 17 years the service is making some necessary changes. Recent legislation has changed the 11-digit number to just three, making it easier to memorize and quicker to call in mental health emergencies. The new number is certainly easier to remember, but experts say the transition may not go as smoothly as planned.
Launched in 2005, the Lifeline’s 200+ crisis centers have connected trained counselors to callers in mental health emergencies like depression, substance abuse, or thoughts of suicide. Even back then, the long and difficult-to-remember number was a concern. Sufferers were calling 911 instead, involving law enforcement more than necessary and making it hard for call centers to keep up. Thus, the push to establish a new number began. In 2020, the number for the hotline became 988 through a bipartisan bill.
On July 16, 2022, the number went live and individuals are now able to call or text to be connected with a trained mental health counselor. A mental health equivalent to 911, preventing the violent police altercations, long waits in emergency rooms, or arrests that are known to happen by involving law enforcement.
The surge in calls shows the advantage of the change, but call centers are struggling to answer them all. Over $400 million has been dedicated by the government to increasing the number of call centers, text services, and Spanish-language services. To deal with further influx, they are also working on setting up backup centers so calls are not abandoned. Still, such a huge endeavor takes time. It will be years before the hotline reaches their goals.
Even so, lawmakers are hopeful. Experts say just reaching out for help is shown to save lives, and 988 is a faster, safer way.