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"988" launches today as mental health crisis hotline

“988” becomes mental health crisis hotline
“988” becomes new mental health crisis hotline 04:39

The dial code "988" launched on Saturday as a new mental health crisis hotline. The number directs "people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress" to trained counselors for free and confidential emotional support 24/7, according to the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline's website

"Our workers work with them to process what's going on that's brought them to the crisis state that they're in and help them identify means of staying safe if they are having thoughts of suicide," call center director Jamieson Brill told CBS News correspondent Jeff Pegues. 

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) said the new hotline's activation is "a critical and groundbreaking step" as millions of Americans are affected by mental illness each year. 

According to the American Psychological Association, the suicide rate in the United States increased by 33% between the years 1999 and 2017, with rates increasing more sharply since 2006. And over the past three years, the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline has received more than three million calls, chats and texts each year, SAMHSA found. 

With the addition of "988," the agency expects volume to double by next July.

"Without proper resourcing, the supply-demand gap is likely to be exacerbated by the creation of 988," the administration said in an appropriations report for the hotline. 

Some worry of potential staffing and infrastructure shortages at call centers as a result. 

"We know for this hotline to be successful, people need not just an easy three digit number to call," former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams said. "But they need someone to actually answer that call and they need resources to be able to refer individuals to. We know that's not in place in a lot of the United States."

In response, President Joe Biden's administration and Congress are increasing federal investments to address the potential issue, including $282 million to scale up crisis centers nationwide and $150 million to amplify the new hotline. 

"If we don't build out the infrastructure and provide the funding for people to be able to get the services that they need, then ultimately this could be a failure moving forward and we don't want that to happen," Adams said. 

Nonetheless, chief clinical officer Erica Turner at Community Crisis Services is encouraging anyone who needs to call the number.

"If you are wondering, you know, whether or not you should call, I think that's an indication that you should call," Turner said. "We want people to know that it is ok to call. We want people to know it is ok to have feelings, to be in crisis."

The current 11-digit number provided by the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline remains available despite the "988" launch. The new hotline is expected to be easier to remember than the previous number, and also seeks to lessen the burden on 911 and provide an alternative for those fearful of involving police during a mental health crisis. 

"If a person is in a mental health crisis, getting an ambulance or getting a police response is not a calming sort of response," executive director of the mental health lifeline Dr. John Draper said. "What many of them need is for someone to come to them who understands, listens and helps them get to a safer place."

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