What is 988, the new mental health crisis hotline number that has launched nationwide?

Beginning on July 16, people in need of help across the U.S. are able to dial a three-digit number to get help from trained personnel.

"The idea is to try to catch people earlier in crisis before it becomes an emergency that might require a police response," said Lisa Dailey, Executive Director with the Treatment Advocacy Center.

According to a recent report by the Treatment Advocacy Center, people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed in a police encounter. In July, Phoenix was served with a lawsuit filed by the family of a mentally disabled man who was shot and killed by officers in July 2021.

Advocates hope the new number, 988, will decrease those odds.

"There are usually a lot of opportunities before it gets to a lethal encounter that end up being missed opportunities, because it wasn’t handled within the medical or social services system," said Dailey.

Here's what you should know about 988.

When did they come up with 988?

According to officials with Vibrant Emotional Health, 988 was designated as the three-digit dialing code for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline via a federal legislation that was signed into law in 2020.

The idea for a three-digit number that directs callers to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline dates back to at least 2018, when lawmakers passed a law that required the FCC to study the assignment of a new three-digit number for suicide prevention, in a way similar to how people will call 911 for emergencies, or 311 for city services.

FCC officials came up with 988 as the three-digit number of 2019.

Why 988?

In its report to Congress, FCC officials said that a set of alternatives have been considered for the three-digit dialing code, including:

  • Expanding the use of a currently existing N11 code (211, 311, 411, 511, 611, 711, 811, and 911)
  • A new, non-N11 dialing code

Ultimately, FCC officials noted a number of problems with existing N11 codes, since they are allocated for a variety of emergency and non-emergency uses, and recommended 988 because using the number should reduce the overall implementation timeline for such a number.

Furthermore, FCC officials noted that and that public education campaigns would be simplified when 988 is used, because other possibilities might involve re-purposing or expanding the use of an existing three-digit code.

What about the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number?

The existing number to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255, will remain available.

How many calls are handled by the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline?

According to officials with the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline), the lifeline has handled over 23 million calls since the line became operational in 2005.

In 2021, the lifeline handled over 2.5 million calls. 

What will happen when someone calls 988?

When someone calls 988, they will be connected to a live person certified to deal with mental health crises.

"They are not dispatchers. They are counselors." said AHCCCS Crisis Administrator CJ Loiselle. "You are connected to a trained counselor when you dial the number. There is an initial robo-answer, asking if you want to connect to the veterans line to press 1, to connect to a Spanish-speaking counselor, or if you don’t press anything, then you’ll speak to a live counselor."

In Arizona, a Tempe-based company called Solari will be one of the call centers that will answer the calls. They already operate a suicide prevention line, which will transition from a 10-digit number to 988.

"We have a pretty high call volume between our current system and partners with the lifeline network," said Loiselle. "We field over 36,000 calls per month."

Will cell phone/landline customers be impacted by the new service?

Yes, but the impact has been felt for the better part of a year.

In October 2021, it was reported that phone users in much of Arizona will need to include area codes when making all calls, as a direct result of 988.

Specifically, officials with the Arizona Corporation Commission said people calling from numbers within the 480, 928, and 520 area codes must use 10-digit dialing when making all calls.

According to a news release, Arizona is one of 36 states with area codes affected by 988. Phone numbers and calling rates, among other things, were not affected.

Are call centers ready?

According to a survey done by RAND Corporation, 51% of the 180 state, regional and county behavioral health program directors interviewed said they have not been involved in crafting a strategic plan for the 988 launch, and only 16% said they have helped to develop a budget for 988 operations.

The program directors interviewed cover more than 120 million Americans — or roughly one-third of the United States, researchers said.

"Our findings have confirmed what many advocates and experts feared: communities throughout the United States have not had the time or resources to adequately prepare for the debut of the 988 hotline number," said Ryan McBain, a policy researcher at RAND.

What is the government doing to ease the transition?

In December 2021, federal health officials announced $282 million in funding to smooth the transition to 988.

Of the $282 million, $177 million will go to bolster and expand the existing crisis network’s operations and telephone infrastructure, including centralized chat and text response, backup capacity and a sub-network for Spanish-speakers. The rest of the money will go to build up staffing at local call centers.

The Associated Press (AP) contributed to this report.

If you or a loved one is feeling distressed, call 988. CLICK HERE for the warning signs and risk factors of suicide. Call 1-800-273-TALK for free and confidential emotional support.