988: The 911 for Mental Health

988: The 911 for Mental Health

The number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is currently 988 and can be reached 24/7. 


On July 16, 2022, 988 will be accessible to all U.S. cell phones and landlines as the new, memorable number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. With funding from the federal government, this new number will achieve the same accessibility 911 currently has. Surely this new number is a good change, but concerns about how the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline will deal with the increase of calls, while they are already struggling to cope with high call volume, have arisen. 

First off, it is important to understand what the lifeline is and how it works. The current number for the lifeline is 800-273-TALK (8255) and is used by those suffering an urgent mental crisis. There are several call centers throughout the U.S., and calls are answered by volunteers or paid counselors. When a counselor is connected to the caller, it has been proven to be effective in preventing suicide. According to the New York Times, the 24-hour lifeline answered two million calls last year. However, there are existing problems with the lifeline that are expected to worsen when 988 brings in many new callers. Last year, 1 in 6 calls to the lifeline were abandoned while callers were waiting for an available counselor. Furthermore, 41% of texts and 73% of chats were abandoned. Clearly, the existing infrastructure is lacking and needs to be addressed. While the implementation of 988 is a great step in increasing awareness of the lifeline, it may not work so well when the current infrastructure is stressed even more than it is now. 

The Biden administration has promised to give $282 million to improve call centers, but many say that continuous state funding to their respective state call centers is essential because the $282 million just simply is not enough. Each of the many call centers in the US can take millions of dollars a year to run individually, and they often have to rely on other sources of funding. Some call centers even organize breakfast events and other fundraisers just to stay afloat. However, as of April 2022, only four states have authorized funding through cell phone bill fees.

While the implementation of 988 is a fantastic move forward, we do not know how it will play out with the existing problems in the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline infrastructure. While funding from the Biden administration will help, it is not enough to fix the underlying problems of the network. Amid our mental health crisis that has only worsened with the pandemic, it is important to discuss the issues that need to be addressed.