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Is the country ready for '988' suicide hotline launch next month?

Some states lack funding
The new National Suicide Hotline number beginning in July 2022 will be 988.
Posted at 3:00 AM, Jun 23, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-23 10:16:06-04

WASHINGTON — It's a big change that just might save a loved one's life. Soon, the 988 line launches across the country as the new mental health emergency crisis line. It's meant to make getting help with a mental crisis as simple as dialing 911.

But is the U.S. ready for the change?

SUICIDE IN THE U.S.

Every 11 minutes in this country someone dies by suicide, according to the CDC. Adding to that is the number of people who think about or attempt suicide.

"In 1995, I lost my fiancé at the time to suicide," said Doreen Marshall, with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, in a recent interview.

Marshall says the times have changed a lot since then and it's about to change again. "Back then I had no awareness," Marshall said.

"Most people still think 911 is who you call for a mental health crisis," Marshall added.

LAUNCH OF 988
Everyone knows about 911 and how it is used for emergencies or to report a crime.

Next month, 988 will launch specifically for mental health emergencies. It is set to go live on July 16th.

"The simpler we can make getting help the better so changing that to a 3-digit number is going to make that simpler," Marshall said.

Marshall added that this is a game-changer and will no doubt result in call centers being able to better serve their purpose.

988 is easier to remember than the current hot line, which is 1-800-273-TALK.

But is the country ready for the launch?

"There is a huge investment of resources that is needed," said Stephanie Brooks Holliday, a clinical psychologist at RAND, a non-partisan research service.

Her nationwide survey reports just 16% of jurisdictions have long-term funding secured for the program and expected expansion of 988.

While Congress passed 988 back in 2020 and the FCC signed off on the launch for next month, both left it up to individual states to actually fund call centers and programs.

A new number, that's easier to remember, could quickly overrun systems.

"People don't feel they have long-term financing in place," Holliday said.

States funding 9-8-8

Each one of these states in red has yet to pass any new funding to improve the hot line, while the states in orange have.

Holliday says there is a particular worry about rural areas with some reporting a two-hour possible response time to get a caller in-person help.

"If you think of someone calling the lifeline network and that person needing an in-person response, and that response taking two hours to happen, that is a real challenge," Holliday added.

There are no plans to delay the launch of 988, but there may be good news on the horizon.

The bipartisan gun reform bill making its way through Congress currently includes $150 million to better implement 988 nationwide. That legislation looks like it will pass.

If you know of someone contemplating ending their life, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the meantime is still 800-273-TALK. The phone line is answered all the time and is free.


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