SAN FRANCISCO – On July 16, call centers in California and the rest of the nation will start taking calls from 988, the new number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. But some outside observers worry the easier-to-remember number will lead to an increase in calls that will overwhelm states that aren't prepared.
The hotline connects callers with trained mental health professionals, acting like a 911 for emergencies not related to crime. The switch from the old hotline number, 800-273-8255, will be occurring all over the nation this month. In anticipation of the change, the RAND Corporation surveyed 180 call centers around the nation. Its report released early last month found that just over half of respondents were prepared for it. Furthermore, only 16% budgeted funds for the crossover.
"Our findings have confirmed what many advocates and experts feared: communities throughout the United States have not had the time or resources to adequately prepare for the debut of the 988 hotline number," said RAND's Ryan McBain, co-lead of the research project.
The hotline began in 2004 as part of federal legislation to address the nation's suicide rates. In 2020, then-President Donald Trump signed legislation switching the hotline number to 988. In December of the following year, President Joe Biden's administration announced it would inject $284 million into upgrading infrastructure for call centers across the nation.
California went even further, with state officials promising to add another $20 million to help with upgrading its 13 call centers last September, and including $8 million for call center upgrades in the proposed 2023 state budget. Also moving through the state assembly is AB 988, authored by Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan (D-Orinda), which imposes a small tax – capped at $.30 – on phone lines to pay for maintaining staffing at the call centers as well as paying for teams of medical professionals to respond to calls in person.
"Like 911, 988 will be a forever system that individuals in mental health crisis have access to," Bauer-Kahan told the New York Times. "Like our 911 system, it needs ongoing funding that's consistent."
Analysis by the New York Times shows call centers were already being overwhelmed before the change, with California first responders unable to assist 10 to 15% of calls. Bauer-Kahan recently revealed that the state expects a 30% increase in calls after the number change.
While the potential increase in calls can be alarming, it just goes to show how important it is to provide services for the 39 million Americans who admitted in 2019 to having some sort of mental health issue.
"We know that in moments of crisis it can be really difficult to find those resources and get the help that you need," Tara Gamboa-Eastman, senior advocate at the Steinberg Institute, told KPIX. "Having one, easy-to-remember three-digit number versus the ten-digit number is going to be life-saving."
Anjali Rimi remembers the struggle she felt early in the pandemic isolated from others and how it pushed her toward suicidal thoughts, so she celebrates the upcoming change.
"In those moments of darkness, which happened as recently as 2020, I could not see any future, I could not see that I could exist or live," she told KPIX 5 on Friday ahead of the change. "There have been times in my life when I have really been down and depressed."
Rimi eventually got the help she needed and says in those critical moments she believes knowing about 988 could have helped her. Two years later, she is still embarrassed to share that she tried to commit suicide but knows speaking out is especially important for her community. As a leader for South Asian trans people she wants the LGBTQ population and immigrants to understand they can speak up about those feelings.
"In that moment, where I have been personally, it's really hard to find or think properly to find those resources," she said. "Being able to stay in community and hearing other people's struggles and know that I am not alone."