The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number changed — here’s why

Beginning Saturday, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – previously 800-273-TALK (8255) – can now be accessed via the three-digit code 988 in a revised version that includes the option for faster and easier access.

The original National Suicide Prevention Lifeline dates back to 2004 and was created by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Center for Mental Health Services and partnered with search engines like Google to enable anyone to search for information about suicide methods or pathways of prevention would get a result containing the lifeline number. Starting this weekend, any such person will receive the code 988 as a result.

According to The Washington Post, moving to a three-digit code is “expected to bring millions more calls, chats and texts into a system where willingness to handle the surge varies by location.”

“I look to 988 as a starting point where we can really reinvent mental health care,” said Hannah Wesolowski, chief advocacy officer for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “We’re really seeing a fundamental shift in the way we respond to people in mental health crises.”

From Lifeline’s website:

988 represents not just a lifeline phone number change, but a unique opportunity to transform how crisis services are delivered. The transition to 988 will require additional policy changes and significant financial support from federal and state governments. Vibrant Emotional Health has identified three key themes to guide the implementation of 988:

  1. Universal and convenient access, These include pervasive public awareness and different modalities for individuals to access 988 through their preferred method of communication.
  2. High quality and personalized experience which is tailored to the unique needs of the individual while conforming to identified best practices.
  3. Connection to resources and tracking to ensure that all individuals contacting 988 have additional local community resources when needed.

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In 2021, SAMHSA reported over 3.6 million calls from help seekers, according to The Washington Post, and that number is expected to reach 7.6 million in the coming year. Each of the 200 call centers that serve the Lifeline is funded from local, state, and federal resources, usually at a literal and emotional deficit, as there is never enough money or manpower.

“988 will work if states commit to it,” says Xavier Becerra, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. “It won’t work well if they aren’t. There is no reason, no excuse for a person in one state to get a good answer and a person in another state to get a busy signal.”

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