After years of planning and negotiating, the mental health equivalent of the 911 emergency number — 988 — is expected to save lives.

Beginning Saturday, anyone having a mental health crisis — including thinking about suicide or issues like substance abuse — can call 988 and reach trained mental health counselors as the country transitions from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s 10-digit number. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is taking its place.

The number is good anywhere in the country for callers, texters or those who choose a chat option. In each case, they will be connected to help in or near their own communities.

In prepared remarks Friday, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said, “988 is more than a number, it is a message: We’re there for you. Through this and other actions, we are treating mental health as a priority and putting crisis care in reach for more Americans.” 

The need is tremendous. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2020 there were twice as many suicides in the U.S. as there were homicides — more than 45,979 suicides compared to the 25,576 homicides. Suicide was the No. 2 cause of death for adolescents 10-14 and adults 25-34, and the third-leading cause of death for teens and young adults.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness says millions of Americans struggle with a mental illness in any given year.

And Hatch Foundation Executive Director Matt Sandgren told KSL Radio that in Utah alone more than 100,000 calls came into the state’s crisis line last year, underscoring how great the need is across the country.

A long-held dream

Although the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act passed Congress in 2020, telephone service and text providers were given until July 16, 2022, to make sure that the 988 number would work and reach the crisis line on all of their networks.

In background material for the media, Health and Human Services officials said the Federal Communications Commission first proposed 988 in a report to Congress in August 2019. But the idea of a three-digit number to connect those in crisis to suicide prevention and mental health counselors had been brewing for years.

In 2016, ​​Utah Sen. Dan Thatcher, then R-West Valley City, told the Deseret News he’d been trying since his 2011 election to get a three-digit phone number set aside for those in mental health crisis, an effort joined by his colleague Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy.

Other discussions were also underway nationally.

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Using hope to steer away from danger

The late Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, pushed for creation of a simple, memorable crisis number. In 2017, Hatch and Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, introduced the National Suicide Prevention Hotline Improvement Act, setting up a study to pick the best three-digit code for the hotline. In 2020, Stewart and Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., introduced the act that would turn the hope into reality.

Stewart agreed with KSL Radio’s Boyd Matheson Thursday that the five years he spent on the issue was a ”long slog. … If you are an impatient person, this isn't the place you want to work,” he said of how slowly things can move in Congress.

In a briefing for journalists “on background,” meaning officials would not be individually named, Department of Health and Human Services officials noted it took five decades for 911 and emergency medical services to grow and expand across the nation. “With the 988 lifeline, we are poised for much faster transformation and we view this as an incredibly transformative moment in time,” one said, describing the process, however, as a “journey and not a sprint.”

Stewart predicted the simplified crisis line number will save thousands of lives, and bring comfort and help to tens of thousands of people who desperately need it. 

Serious about prevention

In 2021, the lifeline handled 3.6 million calls, chats and texts.

The Department of Health and Human Services offered statistics comparing the number of people served in June 2022 to those served in June 2021. Last month, the lifeline took 17,000 more calls from people in mental health crisis than a year ago, a 13% increase. They also received 37,000 more chats (a 148% increase) and 3,000 more texts (a 77% increase). 

During the Biden administration, federal officials have ramped up funding from the $24 million the national crisis line previously received to $432 million, an 18-fold investment including money to bolster crisis centers throughout the country, create backups and provide other services, like counselors who speak Spanish.

In the press briefing, U.S. Health and Human Services said the increased money included $105 million from the American Rescue Plan to provide grants to states and territories to boost the response rates and make sure that calls are routed first to crisis call centers near where they originate. It also included funding from the bipartisan Safer Communities Act which was passed and signed in June. 

Department officials also emphasized that the success of the 988 crisis line “depends heavily” on whether states and local leaders invest in the program.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has worked with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Health Resources and Services Administration and the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs to help states leverage the financial options available, officials said.

The Veterans Administration has long administered a crisis line for veterans through the national lifeline — and will continue to do so through the 988 number. After calling 988, those trying to reach the veterans’ crisis line should press 1.

Both the existing crisis line phone number and the veterans’ crisis line number will also continue to operate, routing calls to 988 “indefinitely,” officials said.

For more information on the new crisis line, visit www.samhsa.gov/988.