What does the 411 of the new 988 hotline mean?

The 988 Lifeline connects callers to specialists trained to provide support for mental health crises, including psychotic symptoms and substance abuse.

Beginning July 16, 2022, people dealing with mental health crises can call 988, a new number focused on providing life-saving suicide prevention and crisis services. But 988 isn’t just a shorter, easier-to-remember replacement for the current suicide hotline. Congress and the Federal Communications Commission also created the 988 Lifeline to address long-standing concerns in mental health care.

The Conversation asked Derek Lee, an Ohio State University graduate student in counselor education and supervision and a therapist, to explain the new service and how it differs from the old hotline. Lee’s academic and research focus is on suicide, including training, intervention and prevention.

What is 988?

The three-digit number is part of a new national mental health program. In 2020, the Federal Communications Commission designated 988 as the hotline number and Congress approved the funding [for the 988 Lifeline Program](http://uscode.house.gov/view.xhtml?req=(title:42%20section:290bb-36c%20edition:prelim).

Can people still call 1-800-273-TALK?

Secure. The soon-to-be-old number has been in service since 2005, but it’s not going away just yet.

On July 16, 988 goes live nationwide and callers can also use it to start calling, texting and chatting.

What’s up with the old number?

The system behind it, including its 200 call centers currently on the national crisis pipeline network, said a 2019 report on the program.

A major problem is that call centers do not always have the staff or technology to handle the growing number of calls.

Calls that in-state centers cannot answer are rerouted to out-of-state centers via the system’s backup network. That means the operator may be less familiar with local crises, according to a spokesman for Vibrant Emotional Health, the nonprofit that manages the crisis line program. Or incoming calls can simply “pool up,” causing phone jams and leaving callers “on hold too long,” a length of time the report doesn’t define.

However, the report notes that there is no single standard for call center wait times, staffing or other operational aspects. They are regulated by the state governments and independently operated.

How will 988 be different?

That is unclear. Vibrant has not released any concrete plans. Congress hasn’t either, but the Behavioral Crisis Services Expansion Act, introduced last year, requires call centers to “offer real-time, air traffic control-quality coordination of crisis care.”

Where will the money come from to pay for all this?

The move to 988 comes with state and federal funding and federal oversight to ensure equitable access. Start-up funding will come through federal channels, including the American Rescue Plan, the Community Mental Health Services Block Grant, and President Biden’s proposed fiscal year 2022 budget. Most of the long-term funding will come from individual states.

Why is this all happening now?

Much of the discussion started during the pandemic, which really brought mental health to the fore. A study of 8 million calls to helplines in 19 countries and regions found that call volume skyrocketed during the first wave of coronavirus infections. At the six-week peak, total calls were 35% higher than before the pandemic.

In the US, the national emergency of the coronavirus and the widespread lockdown that followed led to a nationwide surge in the number of people struggling with depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses. Alcohol consumption increased, particularly among women and college students.

Who uses 988?

Anyone who needs help with their mental health, especially those in crisis. A key goal of 988 Lifeline is to create equity in mental health services, particularly for those who have not always had consistent or reliable access to mental health care.

For example, Vibrant provides operators who speak both English and Spanish, as well as over-the-phone interpreting service in over 150 other languages.

One improvement experts would like to see is the introduction of virtual visits to mental health professionals for those unable to travel for in-person appointments, such as those with disabilities or those in rural areas.

Derek LeeDoctoral student in counselor training and supervision, The Ohio State University

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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