988, a New Suicide Hotline Number, Launches This Week. Here's What To Know

Officials say the easy-to-remember number will make it simpler for people in crisis to access help.

Office Worker Using Telephone Headset
Photo: Getty Images

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline will soon begin using 988 as its new three-digit dialing code. The new number, which will serve as the official three-digit number for the lifeline in every state across the country, will begin operating July 16.

Officials from both the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said that the easy-to-remember number like 988 will make it simpler for people in crisis to access the help they need and is also likely to decrease the stigma surrounding suicide and mental health issues. However, even after 988 is launched nationally, it will still be possible to reach the lifeline via its current 10-digit phone number 1-800-273-8255.

"A direct three-digit line to trained National Suicide Prevention Lifeline counselors will open the door for millions of Americans to seek the help they need while sending the message to the country that healing, hope, and help are happening every day," Hannah Collins, a spokesperson for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, told Health.

Key Details About the New Lifeline Phone Number

Made up of a national network of local crisis centers that provide free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, the lifeline hotline operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in the United States. Currently however, accessing these services requires dialing a 10-digit phone number.

Callers who dial the new 988 number beginning July 16 will continue to have access to the same confidential support in times of distress or during a mental health crisis. Individuals in need will also be able to text the 988 access number, said Colins.

The lifeline functions in much the same way as the 911 emergency line does for medical emergencies.

When individuals call or text the Lifeline, they will first receive a greeting message while their call or text is routed to their local Lifeline network crisis center—which includes over 200 centers around the country. After that, callers will be connected to behavioral health support and experienced counselors who are part of the lifeline network.

"The Lifeline network's infrastructure has existed since 2005 and has been there for people in crisis, and will serve as the foundation of 988," Collins said.

The crisis workers and counselors who provide support via the Lifeline have all been trained to listen and understand any problems a caller may be facing, and connect those in need to appropriate resources.

Some interventions that counselors may take include assessment, stabilization, referral, and even follow-up for individuals at high risk for suicide or poor mental health outcomes. If an even greater level of support is needed, the crisis counselor will work with other specialists to connect the individual to mobile crisis response teams.

Anyone who is thinking about suicide, would like emotional support, or is worried about a loved one or friend can use the 988 support line as well as the 10-digit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, Thea Gallagher, PsyD, a psychologist and clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, told Health.

"This is a mental health crisis number and so it is available all times of the day and night when you need it. But even if you think you may not need it, when you do, it's there," Gallagher said. "That's what makes this different—because you can't always get in touch with a provider or primary care doctor on a Saturday night."

If you're wondering about calling, then call. Don't hesitate, Gallagher added. "They [trained counselors] can tell you the next steps to follow," Gallagher said.

Why Simplified Access To The Lifeline is Critical

Suicide has ranked as the 10th leading cause of death in the United States since 2008, according to the FCC. Suicide claimed the lives of more than 44,000 Americans in 2020 and it's suggested that suicidal thoughts and actions have been heightened due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline reported that the suicide rate has climbed nearly 30% since 1999. What's more, the rate has increased in 49 out of 50 states over the last decade.

"For too long, our system for mental health crisis services has been underfunded and undervalued," Collins said. "We will now meet this challenge with the evidence-based crisis intervention that the 988 crisis line will provide."

Not only is 988 a simpler number to remember, but it also gives many people easy access to mental health services in times of crisis, said Gallagher.

"Just shortening the number and making it something easy to remember allows people at any age to be able to access it in their memory quite easily," Gallagher said. "Having something like 988 whether it be for yourself or a loved one available in all 50 states is a huge step for mental health and it's a huge step for breaking the stigma."

As part of the switch to 988, the FCC is also requiring text providers to support direct texting and calling to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline through 988.

To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles