988 is the New Number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Starting Saturday, a new dialing code will help separate police from mental health matters in an attempt to limit deadly interactions

Starting Saturday, 988 is the new number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The three-digit dialing code will connect callers nationwide to local crisis centers providing immediate, 24/7 support and resources. 

Though the previous ten-digit number (1-800-273-8255) will remain active, on July 16, dialing 988 will connect Californians to one of 13 National Suicide Prevention call centers, according to Cal Matters. Nationwide, people experiencing mental health crises will also be connected to local counseling centers through the new number. 

The new dialing code is an attempt to avoid the trauma and fatalities frequently associated with people experiencing mental health emergencies having their calls answered by 911 operators who are not trained for such incidents, according to NPR. In contrast, counselors at call centers who have had dedicated mental health training can often intervene effectively. As of now, however, the majority of people experiencing suicidal feelings or thoughts of self-harm dial 911 instead. 

The results are unnecessary emergency room visits, at best, and in worst case scenarios, fatal interactions with the police.

In 2019, 23-year-old Californian Miles Teller was shot and killed in the street by authorities when his family called 911 seeking help for his mental health breakdown. A year later, the 988 solution was signed into law by Donald Trump and is now going into effect. The 2020 bipartisan effort to separate police from mental health matters is a joint endeavor between the Department of Health and Human Service, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Among the first states onboard with the new dialing code, California’s Department of Health Care Services announced in September that $20 million in federal funding would go to the state’s call centers and mental health crisis services. For California’s 58 counties, the grant was a direct result of overwhelming support for the launch the 988 number. 

California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said in the statement, “While the 911 system is dedicated to public safety emergencies, the launch of the 988 hotline next summer gives people an easy-to-remember number to call for focused support during behavioral health emergencies.”

Governor Gavin Newsom added, “This $20 million investment is a critical first step to ensure crisis call centers have capacity and are equipped to help all callers so we can meet Californians where they are and expand resources and support during these difficult times.”

Yet some supporters of the plan fear Saturday could prove to be a day of reckoning for California call centers.

Expecting a massive response once the number becomes active, advocates say the additional funding won’t be enough to cover the surge in calls, and pushed for $50 million instead, Cal Matters reported. Others support a bill that would impose a fee on California phone lines in order to collect the money.

Though that plan is controversial, call center workers say their main concern is what may happen if people in crisis are left on hold or have their calls dropped.

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