The new 988 hotline is 911 for mental health emergencies

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

The United States’ first three-digit national mental health hotline goes live on 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 mental health centers in emergency, similar to urgent care clinics that treat physical pain.

“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 State Mental Health Program Directors. .

Hepburn warns that when the 988 starts up, it won’t be like “a flick of the switch”. It’s going to be several years before we can reach everyone across the country. »

Some states already have comprehensive mental health crisis systems, but others still have a long way to go. And widespread shortages of mental health specialists are expected to slow their ability to expand services.

A survey by RAND Corp. published last month found that less 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 received specialized training in suicide prevention; half said they had mobile crisis response teams available 24/7 with certified counsellors; and less than a third had emergency mental health care units.

The 988 system will draw on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, an existing network of more than 200 crisis centers nationwide staffed with counselors who answer millions of calls each year – about 2.4 million in 2020. Calls to the old lifeline, 1-800-273-8255, will still go through even with 988 in place.

“If we can make 988 work like 911…lives will be saved,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said.

Sending in paramedics for heart attacks and police for crimes makes sense — but not for psychiatric emergencies, mental health advocates say. Calls to 911 for these crises often result in violent encounters with law enforcement and trips to jails 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 required. According to the National Academy of State Health Policy, four states have enacted laws to impose telecommunications fees to support 988, and many more are working on the issue.

A desperate appeal to a Utah state senator in 2013 helped spark the idea of ​​a three-digit mental health hotline.

Senator Daniel Thatcher says a good friend asked for his help after he took his suicidal son to the ER, only to be told by a doctor to come back if the boy got hurt.

Thatcher struggled with depression and at age 17 also contemplated suicide. He knew that discouraged people in crisis might not have the wherewithal to call for help or remember the national 10-digit lifeline number.

Thatcher found that many crisis lines in the state of Utah went directly to police dispatchers or voicemail. He wondered why there was no 911 service for mental health, and the idea gained national attention after he mentioned it to longtime Senator 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 help. He says 988 has the potential to make it easier for others.

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

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(Written by AP Medical Writer Lindsey Tanner.)

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