9-8-8: The New Mental Health Hotline You Need to Know About

Photo credit

There is a new emergency number to call or text for anyone experiencing a suicidal crisis or mental health-related issue. Modeled after 9-1-1, the easy-to-remember three-digit number, 9-8-8, immediately connects callers with the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, replacing the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

9-8-8 Explained

Calling or texting the numbers 9-8-8 from any phone in the United States will reach one of more than 200 crisis centers that provide immediate counseling and mental health referrals in the caller’s or texter’s area. The Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) will support these crisis centers. 9-8-8 is free to call or text and is available to anyone involved in a suicidal or emotionally distressing situation. 

“988 is more than just an easy-to-remember number β€” it’s a direct connection to compassionate, accessible care and support for anyone experiencing mental health-related distress, whether that’s thoughts of suicide, mental health, substance use crisis, or any other kind of emotional distress,” says the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

What Else You Need to Know About 9-8-8

  • Veterans who press ‘1’ after calling 9-8-8 will reach the Veterans Crisis Lifeline, which supports veterans, service members, National Guard and Reserve Members, and the people who care about them. (Veterans should continue to text the Veterans Crisis Lifeline on 838255.) 
  • People in Canada who call or text 9-8-8 will reach local suicide prevention services. 
  • Google and other popular search engines will display the 9-8-8 number at the top of results pages for suicide-related search terms. 

What Happened to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline?

The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline replaces the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255). The number served a similar purpose to 9-8-8 and received 46,000 calls in its first year, according to the FCC. In 2019, the FCC, SAMSHA, and Department of Veterans Affairs recommended 9-8-8 as the national suicide prevention phone number because it’s easier to remember for people in crisis who need access to help and resources. The number will also decrease the stigma surrounding suicide and mental health issues. 

“The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is an important step toward strengthening and transforming crisis care in this country,” adds the FCC. “It serves as a universal entry point so that no matter where you live, you can reach a trained crisis counselor who can help.”

Another reason for the switch to 9-8-8 is that many people who experience a mental health emergency dial 9-1-1, but emergency service dispatchers often don’t have the training or resources to support mental health needs. The 9-8-8 number will hopefully become a widely known alternative. 

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s number will remain active but automatically connect to 988.  

Why Did 9-8-8 Take So Long to Implement?

The 9-8-8 number went live on July 16, 2022 β€” more than three years after three separate government agencies recommended its use. That’s because some areas in the United States already had numbers with the 9-8-8 prefix. Calling 988-200-5500, for example, would connect to the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. The government asked these areas to retire all numbers with the 9-8-8 prefix. 

Why Is 9-8-8 So Important?

Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in the U.S., with suicide rates increasing 30 percent between 2000 and 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There were 45,979 deaths by suicide in 2020 alone β€” that’s around one death every 11 minutes. An estimated 12 million adults thought about suicide that same year. 

“Often, feeling actively suicidal is temporary, even if someone has been feeling low, anxious, or struggling to cope for a long period of time,” says Samaritans. “This is why getting the right kind of support at the right time is so important.”

What to Expect When Calling 9-8-8

The 9-8-8 number connects to trained mental health counselors at the caller’s or texter’s nearest crisis center. If a center is too busy to respond, a call or text will connect to a backup center. 

A person can anonymously communicate with a trained professional and talk about how they feel. The call or text will last for however long the person likes because professionals at crisis centers don’t follow any scripts. Professionals can also make referrals to mental health centers and other healthcare facilities in the person’s local area.

Final Word

As of July 16, 2022, there’s a new emergency number for people experiencing emotional distress and thoughts of suicide (and the people who care about them). The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, available on 9-8-8, replaces the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which has existed for 17 years. The new easy-to-remember number connects to one of more than 200 crisis centers that offer support and resources for those in need.