Jul 15, 2022 - News

New 988 suicide hotline goes live July 16

Data: National Academy for State Health Policy; Map: Nicki Camberg/Axios

People experiencing a mental health crisis anywhere in the country will soon be able to call or text message a three-digit number — 988 — and be connected to an emergency helpline akin to 911.

What's happening: Starting Saturday, 988 will go live, replacing the existing 10-digit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (although people can continue using the old 800 number as well).

In Washington state, calls and texts to 988 will be routed to one of three local call centers, each staffed with those trained at counseling people in crisis.

  • It's designed to work like 911, but for mental health calls.

Why it matters: The idea is that the three-digit number will be easier to remember, making counseling and other mental health resources more accessible to people during their darkest moments, state Rep. Tina Orwall (D-Des Moines) told Axios Seattle.

What they're saying: "I do think this launch is going to save lives," Orwall said. "People often don't know how to connect to a clinician if they are feeling a lot of emotional pain or thinking about hurting themselves."

Details: To prepare for the 988 rollout, Washington legislators passed a bill last year to improve staffing at the state's crisis call centers — a measure Orwall sponsored.

  • The new law includes a tax on telephone lines that will raise more than $45 million per year to support mental health resources around the state.
  • Orwall said the permanent funding source will help ensure that when people call 988, they can be directed to the specialized help they need.

Context: Washington is one of 21 states that has enacted legislation related to the launch of the 988 system, according to the National Academy For State Health Policy.

  • Of those, only three besides Washington have established a telecom tax to support the 988 rollout.
  • 29 states have gone without passing legislation to prepare, per the academy.

The big picture: While the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has focused on keeping people from harming themselves, officials in Washington state say the enhanced 988 system will be equipped to handle a variety of mental health calls.

  • "No issue is too big or too small," Michelle McDaniel, CEO of the Crisis Connections call center in King County, told KING 5. "Call 988 if you have concerns, call 988 if you're worried about yourself, call 988 if you're not even sure who to talk to about an issue you're going through."

State of play: Through next summer, Washington plans to invest $26 million — on top of $13 million from the federal government — to expand mobile crisis response teams around the state.

  • These teams, which include trained mental health professionals, can be dispatched to people in crisis.
  • Orwall said in many cases, the mobile teams can eliminate the need for armed police officers, reducing the likelihood of tragic or traumatic confrontations.

What's next: Over time, Washington's new 988 law will equip crisis call centers with better technology, such as computer systems showing where mental health treatment beds are available in real time.

  • Next-day crisis appointments will become more widely available starting in 2023, Orwall added.
  • A state committee will continue to analyze gaps in the 988 system and propose fixes.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 — or starting July 16, you can text message or call 988.

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