What is 988? Explaining The New National Mental Health Hotline

Americans in the middle of suffering from mental health crises will now have a quicker means of accessing the help and support they need. Although the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act has been in the works since 2020, passed through the House before officially advancing through the Senate, the universal 9-8-8 mental health helpline will officially go live in the U.S. this summer.

This new law is contingent upon the Federal Communications Commission (F.C.C.) establishing a new, abbreviated three-digit hotline to respond to crises. The new measure aims to expand the ease at which people can access mental health resources via telephone, and aims to expand the scope of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, so it can also more effectively respond to general mental health and addiction crises. 

It’s also intent on expanding access to marginalized people who far too often face prejudice, discrimination, and accessibility inequities in the American mental healthcare system, including BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and people in poverty. Far, far too often, people are unable to afford and access the support they need through debilitating episodes of depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety, addiction, and post-traumatic stress.

The following guide will explain how this new hotline aims to help close those accessibility gaps for those in need, and we’ll point you toward affordable online mental healthcare resources, in case you or a loved one are in additional need.

How Will 988 Work?

The 9-1-1 crisis hotline, as well as equivalent universal emergency hotlines in other countries, is typically three digits. This is done so it can be reached quickly and memorized easily. The new 9-8-8 helpline is intent on applying that same principle specifically to crises related to mental health, addiction, and substance abuse crises.

Starting next month (July 16th, to be exact), the FCC will designate 988 as the new universal telephone number for suicide prevention response and responding to mental health crises. Anyone who needs phone-based mental health crisis support will be able to receive it by calling or texting the 988 hotline. People can also dial 988 if they have concerns or reason to believe that a loved one is in need of mental health crisis support.

While the original National Suicide Prevention Lifeline will continue to remain active after the 988 hotline goes live (at 1-800-273-8255), the three-digit 988 helplines will be there to briskly connect emotionally distressed callers with trained Lifeline counselors.

Where Is 988 Available?

As we’ve stated above, the 988 hotlines will be working in collaboration with the pre-existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Since 2005, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s staff and a team of trained counselors have been operating across a network of over 200 crisis centers since 2005.

This vast network allows 988 to be accessed in all 50 states, as well as all five prominent U.S. territories - Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, as well as the Virgin Islands. It’s important that this coverage reaches so far and wide. According to the NSPL’s “By The Numbers” page, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among young people. Since 2005, the Prevention Lifeline has performed crucial crisis intervention work by answering over 20 million calls. 

The 988 helpline can also be reached via text, which will also be routed through the NSPL’s network of over 200 crisis prevention centers. Many of these crisis centers also offer mental health training for those interested in becoming counselors themselves, and enriching access to mental health resources in their community.

Furthermore, veterans in emotional distress can reach out to the Veterans Crisis Line for support by texting 838255, or by visiting www.veteranscrisisline.net and reaching out to their online chat portal. To learn more about how the 988 hotline aims to expand access to emergency crisis intervention resources, refer to the FCC’s 988 fact sheet guide for more information.

How Will 988 Be Funded?

The 988 hotline is backed by a number of funding sources, including DHS workforce funding, the President’s FY22 budget, and additional funding sources from the public, private, and federal levels. In addition to these resources, legislation has allowed additional means of support to be directed to 988 crisis prevention efforts across the country.

For more detailed explanations on that and additional frequently asked questions related to 988, refer to this FAQ created by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Online Mental Health Resources

If you or a loved one is in need of affordable, longer-term behavioral health support that can be received anywhere, we would strongly encourage you to refer to online therapy providers such as Antidote Health.

And if you ever find yourself in a crisis of severe, potentially life-threatening emotional distress, we would strongly, strongly recommend that you seek additional support by referring to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the Crisis Text Line (741-741), or soon, the 3-digit 988 hotline.

We want you to know that you are never alone in your struggles.

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Sarah Ryan
Sarah Ryan