The new 988 is 911 for mental health emergencies

Quick help for suicidal thoughts and other mental health emergencies may soon be as easy as calling 9-8-8.

America’s first triple-digit national 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 dispatching police, firefighters, or paramedics, 988 will connect callers with 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 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 Directors of State Mental Health Programs.

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

Some states already have comprehensive mental health crisis systems in place, but others have a long way to go. And a widespread shortage of mental health specialists is expected to slow their ability to scale up 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 an influx of calls.

Nearly 60% said call center staff 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 urgent mental health care units.

The 988 system will be based on the National Lifeline for Suicide Preventionan existing network of more than 200 crisis centers across the country staffed by counselors who respond to millions of calls each year, about 2.4 million in 2020. Calls to the old helpline, 1-800-273- 8255 will still work even with the 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 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 it 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 enacted laws to impose telecommunications fees to support 988, and many others are working on the issue.

A desperate call to a Utah state senator in 2013 helped spawn the idea for a triple-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 got hurt.

Thatcher has battled depression and, at 17, also considered suicide. She knew that downtrodden people in crisis may lack the means to seek help or remember the 10-digit national suicide survival number.

Thatcher found that many of the crisis lines in the state of Utah went directly to police dispatchers or voicemail. She wondered why there wasn’t a 911 service for mental health, and the idea garnered national attention after she mentioned it to veteran Sen. Orrin Hatch.

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

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

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


Follow AP Medical Writer Lindsey Tanner on @LindseyTanner.


The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.


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