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What does 988 mean?

Written by Bruce Cruser

Bruce Cruser has been Executive Director of Mental Health Virginia since 2016, bringing a background in social work and community corrections, and many years of leadership experience in local and state government.

July 16, 2022

Until now, if you were to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, you would call 1-800-273-TALK. As of July 16, you can call 988 to reach the Lifeline, a number that is much easier to remember.

In addition to having a new number, the move to 988 includes a much broader purpose. While continuing to be suicide prevention, it is intended to provide crisis counseling for anyone experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis.

Eventually 988 is to serve as an emergency number anywhere in the U.S. for behavioral health emergencies, able to connect callers to local mobile crisis response, community crisis facilities and a network of supportive resources after the initial call. It will be comparable to 911 for police, fire and ambulance response. Most crises may be resolved without needing to send an emergency responder, and when a team does respond to the scene, in most cases it will be led by a trained behavioral health professional, not law enforcement. However, this is the goal, not yet the reality.

While all calls will be answered 24/7 (as they are now), not all services will immediately be in place everywhere, and not all calls will be answered locally at this point. Virginia and other states are in the process of expanding and staffing local call centers, in addition to setting up or expanding local services and resources. This is why the 988 rollout is really a “soft launch.” It will be a year or more before a major marketing campaign is in place, once many of the connecting support services are functioning.

Virginia is organizing services on a regional basis, integrating a mobile crisis response system and the Marcus Alert co-response protocols with the 988 call center system, and piloting these in different parts of the state. It is a long process and will take sustained funding. A shortage of trained behavioral health professionals is just one of many barriers to full implementation.

Meanwhile, 988 is easy to remember and it will connect with a trained crisis counselor. And Virginia’s local public mental health agencies (Community Services Boards) have 24/7 crisis lines. A list of those is here: Virginia Community Services Board Directory

More on 988:

• The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) is a network of more than 200 state and local call centers funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is administered by MHA affiliate Vibrant Emotional Health in New York.

• The intent of 988 is to offer 24/7 access to trained crisis counselors who can help people experiencing suicidal, substance use, and other mental health crises.

• This 988 line will also serve as an intervention before the presence of a crisis.

• Over time, the vision for 988 is to have expanded crisis services, including mobile crisis and crisis receiving facilities available in all communities across the country.

• It is anticipated that 988 will continue to grow and evolve over the years, and there is still much work to be done at the federal, state, and local levels.

• In 2021, the Lifeline received 3.6 million calls, chats, and texts, which included over 540,000 calls routed to the Veterans Crisis Line. It is expected that the number of calls will at least double within the first full year after the 988 transition.

• Historically, the Lifeline has been massively underfunded and under-resourced.

• State and territory engagement is critical in building crisis center capacity, as well as developing local, sustainable funding commitments to support 988 crisis response over time.

How does it work?

Call: When you call 988, you will first hear a greeting message with the options to press 1 for the Veterans Crisis Line, 2 for Spanish, or stay on the line while your call is routed to your local Lifeline network crisis center. Then a trained crisis counselor will answer the phone, provide support, and share resources if needed.

Text: When you text 988, you will complete a short survey letting the crisis counselor know a little about your situation. You will be connected with a trained crisis counselor in a crisis center, who will answer the text, provide support, and share resources if needed.

Chat: Visit 988lifeline.org and find the chat button in the top right-hand corner of the screen. You will complete a short survey letting the crisis counselor know a little bit about your current situation. Then you’ll see a wait-time message while you are connected with a trained crisis counselor who will answer the chat, provide support, and share resources if needed.

Calls are answered locally if there is a local call center. When/if local call centers are not staffed, calls are routed to nearby states or the national office at Vibrant.

For additional information:

MHA and Vibrant FAQ: Understanding 988 and how it can help with behavioral health crises

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