Series: From the President

New 988 Hotline Is an Important Step for Mental Health, but It’s Just the Beginning

Nicholas Turner President & Director // Daniela Gilbert Director, Redefining Public Safety // Nazish Dholakia Senior Writer
Jul 12, 2022

On July 16, 988—the new three-digit number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline—launches nationwide. It’s a necessary step to make critical support services more accessible to people experiencing mental health, substance use, and suicide crises. Callers will also still be able to reach the lifeline, launched in 2005, at its original 10-digit number, 1-800-273-8255.

With the rollout, people will now be able to call, text, or online chat 988 and reach trained crisis counselors. For advocates and experts who have long awaited the launch, the aim is for 988 to become as ubiquitous as 911 is for emergencies.

But the goal isn’t just for people in crisis to be able to reach specially trained operators at a new, easy-to-remember number. We hope that 988 will drive communities to invest in services that meet the needs of people experiencing behavioral health crises.

The need for 988 and robust crisis services

911 operators receive millions of calls every year related to mental health and substance use. By default, they often dispatch police officers. But much evidence shows that police are ill-equipped to respond to these situations safely and effectively. People in the United States with untreated mental health conditions are 16 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement than others. In 2021, at least 104 people were killed after police responded to reports of someone “behaving erratically or having a mental health crisis.” Each experience is heartbreakingly tragic. Family members reluctantly call 911 for help, well aware of the lethal risks but with no other option.

Many more people end up behind bars, without adequate access to treatment or care. In Texas, for example, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez calls its county jail “the largest mental health facility in the state.” This is unacceptable.

With 988, there’s immense opportunity. The hope is that counselors at 988 call centers provide timely support to people with behavioral health needs and that communities build on this momentum to create more robust crisis systems. More than a dozen cities, for example, have already developed crisis response programs that dispatch first responders such as licensed clinicians and other specially trained crisis workers—instead of police—to help people experiencing behavioral health crises.

The Community Assistance and Life Liaison (CALL) program in St. Petersburg, Florida, is one example. It began in February 2021, driven by calls from the community to remove law enforcement from situations that don’t demand a police response—situations in which their involvement can actually be harmful. St. Petersburg, in turn, decided not to hire more police officers and instead invested those funds in the crisis response initiative.

Today, CALL navigators respond to calls related to mental health, substance use, homelessness, neighbor disputes, and youth issues like truancy. CALL navigators have responded to more than 5,800 calls since the program’s inception.

“Some of these 911 calls aren’t supposed to be 911 calls,” said Tianna Audet, CALL’s program director.

And more and more cities are launching civilian-led crisis response programs, she said, because they’re needed. Without them, 988 and 911 operators alike will often have no choice but to dispatch police if they determine that an in-person response is needed in a crisis situation. Close collaboration between 911 and 988 is also critical, so that police are not dispatched by default when a social worker or other trained behavioral health specialist would be more appropriate.

Building out crisis response systems and services—which can actually save cities millions—is required to fully realize the value 988 offers. And to effectively develop and implement these programs demands collaboration among various stakeholders, including the people who these systems are designed to serve, as well as advocates, behavioral health providers, medical professionals, law enforcement, and representatives from city, county, and state agencies.

States and localities need to invest in extended crisis services—as some already have—and Congress should provide federal funding for these initiatives. Instead of spending millions criminalizing and incarcerating people with unmet behavioral health needs, governments need to invest in services that ensure people get the care and support they need.