(NewsNation) — The United States’ first nationwide three-digit mental health crisis hotline went live Saturday. Anyone experiencing a mental health crisis can now access the free and confidential support service by calling or texting 988.
Over 200 locally operated and funded crisis centers across the country are operating 24/7, responding to 988 calls and text messages in an attempt to reimagine crisis response in the U.S.
“It’s a game changer,” said Abdul Henderson, executive director at Mental Health America of Georgia. “Today is a very significant day, especially in destigmatizing issues related to mental health and substance use.”
The 988 service is designed to be as easy to remember and use as 911, but instead of a dispatcher sending police, firefighters or paramedics, 988 will connect callers with trained mental health counselors.
Dr. Dan Reidenberg discussed the differences between 911 and 988 during an appearance on “Morning in America”.
“If somebody is in imminent crisis, maybe if they have something that they’ve already done to hurt themselves, or if they have something that could be really, really lethal. Then yes, call 911 right away,” Reidenberg said. “But if not, if they’re struggling, if they have a thought about hurting themselves, or maybe they’re worried about it, or they’re just feeling anxiety, then call 988.”
If you or someone you know needs help, resources or someone to talk to, you can find it at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website or by calling 1-800-273-8255. People are available to talk to 24×7.
“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 cautioned, though, that the start of the new hotline will not be like “the flick of a switch. It’s going to take a number of years in order for us to be able to reach everybody across the country.”
Some states already have comprehensive mental health crisis systems, but others have a long way to go. And widespread shortages of mental health specialists are expected to slow their ability to expand services.
“This is going to take time. It’s going to be a transition where we’re going to increase the capacity of crisis centers across the country, being able to handle the volume of calls coming in because there are so many people that are hurting right now,” Reidenberg said. “And they need to talk to someone.”
A RAND Corp. survey published last month found that fewer than half of state or regional public health officials were confident about being ready for 988, which is expected to generate an influx of calls.
“They’re expecting the call volume to double,” Henderson said. “Right now we’re about 250,000 calls a year, that is expected to double to over 500,000.”
Nearly 60% said call-center staffers had specialized suicide prevention training; half said they had mobile crisis response teams available 24/7 with licensed counselors and fewer than one-third had urgent mental health care units.
The 988 system will build on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, an existing network of over 200 crisis centers nationwide staffed by 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 get 988 to work like 911 … lives will be saved,’’ said Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra.
Dispatching paramedics for heart attacks and police for crimes makes sense — but not for psychiatric emergencies, mental health advocates say. Calls to 911 for those crises can lead to violent law enforcement encounters and trips to jail or crowded emergency rooms where suicidal people can wait days for treatment.
The 988 system “is a real opportunity to do things right,” said Hannah Wesolowski of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“To catch people early or while they’re in crisis and get them help. It is going to save lives, yes,” Henderson said.
Sustained funding will be needed. According to the National Academy of State Health Policy, four states have enacted laws to impose telecommunications fees to support 988 and many others are working on the issue.
A desperate call to a Utah state senator in 2013 helped spark the idea of a three-digit mental health crisis line.
Sen. Daniel Thatcher says a good friend sought his help after taking his suicidal son to an emergency room, only to be told by a doctor to come back if the boy hurt himself.
Thatcher has battled depression and at 17, he also considered suicide. He knew that despondent people in crisis may lack the wherewithal to seek out help or to remember the 10-digit national suicide lifeline number.
Thatcher found that many of Utah’s in-state crisis lines went straight to police dispatchers or voicemail. He wondered why there was no 911 service for mental health, and the idea got national attention after he mentioned it to longtime Sen. 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 him help. He says 988 has the potential to make it that easy for others.
“If you get help, you live. It really is that simple,’’ Thatcher said.
The Hill and the Associated Press contributed to this report.