The Launch of 988: A Leap Forward for Mental Health

The United States recently took a leap forward in the interest of making it easier for people experiencing a mental health crisis to get the help they need quickly. A new 3-digit dialing code, “988,” went into effect nationally this month, updating the longer and harder-to-remember 10-digit number people previously called if they wanted to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

There’s a tremendous need for behavioral health support in this country, and anything that can help people access that help with as few obstacles as possible is a great step in the right direction.

In a measure passed by Congress, the FCC required all telecommunication carriers to divert calls made to “988” to a national support line “1-800-273-8255” effective July 16, 2022.

Drawing of hands surrounding a heart, in front of lines repeating "There is hope" and the 988 logo.

What’s changing

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPL) manages a partnership of nearly 200 local communities nationwide. The NSPL will continue to offer and support calls, texts, or chats from their existing contact of 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) for phone calls or 741741 for texts. As of July 16, they also began to field calls, texts, or chats made to 988. In addition, their services are being expanded so they will be able to handle a broader range of mental health concerns.

New 988 number for Suicide Prevention Lifeline

When someone calls 988, they will reach a trained mental health counselor. Depending on their location, they may be transferred to a local crisis center in their area. While the 988 number is already in effect, implementing the full infrastructure to support increased demand for behavioral health services in local communities will be a gradual process that could take years.

NOTE: Depending on community resources available, police or emergency responders may be dispatched.

Looking ahead to increased mental health support 

Although the 988 system is still in the early launch stage, this is a big step toward building a crisis infrastructure system that diverts individuals with mental illness or drug or alcohol dependence, or anyone who is experiencing emotional distress in their life, to specialized support and care. The goal is for mental health professionals to lead every step of a crisis event in hopes of improving outcomes for individuals with behavioral health care needs and their loved ones/families. This type of support structure will help break down the barriers that exist in the behavioral health care system in this country, so there is easier access to mental health care for all Americans.

According to 2020 National Survey of Drug Use and Health data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, while 93% of college students were aware of mental health services available through campus and 52% needed this support, only 13% utilized these services.

The mental health team at Penn State World Campus Student Affairs is eager to assist students in accessing the resources they need — and we’re hoping to greatly improve those numbers!

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