For anyone struggling with their mental health, help will now just be a three-digit dial away.
On July 16, a new, shorter number for the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline officially goes into effect nationwide: 988. The hotline will connect people to a network of crisis counselors, making it easier for Americans to get mental health support for themselves or a loved one.
“The 988 line will break down barriers — both practical and in terms of stigma — to asking for and receiving support,” said Jennifer Christian-Herman, the vice president of Mind Body Medicine at Blue Shield of California. “The goal for the hotline is to mirror 911 in its ability to link individuals to the right level of care sooner. When someone is distressed, the last thing you want is for them to have to search for the right number to call. Knowing that confidential support is just a three-digit call away will save lives.”
Here’s what the hotline can and should be used for, and some other important information to know:
The hotline is free and available to use any time.
One of the most challenging things about getting mental health care in this country is that it’s often expensive and inaccessible. The Lifeline is free and available to anyone who needs it. It’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Anyone who is having a mental health crisis can use the number.
For those contemplating suicide or self-harm, you should dial 988 ― particularly if you feel you have no one else you can talk to about what’s going on. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has trained counselors who can help you through a mental health crisis and resources available to keep you alive and safe.
People who are concerned that a loved one may be in crisis can also call the number for help.
“The Suicide Prevention Lifeline is most well-known for providing confidential support during times when people are having thoughts of suicide,” said Dr. Lauren Khazem, a research assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral health at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Callers can expect to have someone provide compassionate, nonjudgmental support, assist in identifying ways to lower the intensity of strong emotions, and work to create a safer living environment for the caller during times of crisis.”
But you can also call 988 if you’re not having a mental health emergency.
If you’re struggling with your mental health but aren’t actively considering suicide or self-harm, you can still call the hotline and talk with a counselor about what you’re experiencing. The same applies to people who are looking for help for their loved ones.
“If an individual feels the need for support, there is no reason to wait for a problem to become a crisis,” Christian-Herman said. “Speaking to a trained crisis counselor can help the person or family member or friend find support and services for the current problem and learn what to do when or if the problem becomes worse.”
The hotline can help provide resources for mental health conditions (depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, you name it), severe emotional distress, substance misuse and much more. If you’re going through a hard time, crisis counselors are there to listen to you.
“The 988 line will break down barriers — both practical and in terms of stigma — to asking for and receiving support.”
The hotline can help you find mental health assistance in your area or help during off-peak times.
“Since the Lifeline is a network of crisis centers, callers can also expect to be provided with local and national resources specific to their mental health needs,” Khazem said. “These resources are especially critical during times when a mental health care provider may not be available, including on weekends, during late hours, or on holidays.”
If you don’t feel comfortable speaking to someone on the phone, there’s also a texting option.
It can be awkward to talk about something so deeply personal with a complete stranger. For those who don’t feel comfortable speaking but still need or want assistance, the hotline also has a texting option.
“The 988 Lifeline’s texting feature will provide another key way to connect; this is especially important for younger people, who are often more comfortable communicating by text,” Christian-Herman said.
You can access this by visiting suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat. You’ll still get the same level of care, just via a messaging system rather than over the phone. (The original hotline number, 1-800-825-TALK, will also still be active for those who know it and dial it instead of 988.)
Using the hotline may improve mental health outcomes.
Christian-Herman said research suggests callers who use the hotline are “significantly more likely to feel less depressed, less suicidal, less overwhelmed and more hopeful after speaking to a Lifeline crisis counselor.”
“The goal is to provide support for people in suicidal crisis or mental health-related distress in the moments they most need it and in a manner which is person-centered,” Christian-Herman said.
All that said, there are a few important points to also keep in mind.
By and large, the hotline is a vital and necessary service to help at-risk people stay alive and get the help they need. However, there are a few important kinks experts are concerned about and are actively working to address.
The first is the worry that there may not be enough counselors to meet demand. A report published earlier this week from The New York Times stated that the hotline may struggle to meet demand once more people are aware of the number — especially given the increase in mental health struggles in the last few years. (The Lifeline received nearly 2.4 million calls in 2020.) Right now, many call centers are working with small budgets and very little funding for staffing and other needs.
“My ultimate hope is that expanding access to suicide prevention resources through the Lifeline will be met with increased local and federal funding and resources for these centers that serve callers in need,” Khazem said. “The success connecting callers with needed resources in times of crisis depends on it.”
Additionally, the goal of the hotline is to reduce police and emergency room involvement ― a crucial fix that advocates say will help save more lives overall. There have been numerous documented cases where police intervention during a mental health crisis has made the situation worse.
However, Lifeline counselors may feel a caller needs an “active rescue,” which may mean staff could be required to take action they feel is necessary to ensure the safety of the caller if the caller is unable to do so themselves. This may mean involving emergency responders and/or escorts to the emergency room. Experts told BuzzFeed News this may have unintended consequences for the caller, such as hospital bills, psychiatric holds, medication or more depending on the caller’s situation.
This is why it’s critical that staff tailor each caller’s needs to the right intervention. Mental health problems affect everyone differently. If someone is calling the Lifeline and they’re worried about a counselor deploying an emergency response, they should feel free to talk about that on the call as part of the discussion as well.
Ultimately, there are people at the other end of the line who want to help you or anyone else experiencing issues with their mental health. Calling is always better than doing nothing in a life-threatening situation ― whether it be your own or someone else’s. Don’t hesitate to reach out.