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Why You Need to Know about 988, the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline

logo of 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline

You know about 911, but the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline may still be a mystery.

Just as you call 911 for emergencies that threaten your body, calling 988 safeguards your mind. The free, confidential service is available to anyone in the U.S. who is in emotional distress or having a mental health or substance abuse crisis.

After one year of operation, the Lifeline is working.  

“80- to 90%-plus of people who contact 988 are going to be de-escalated over the phone and ideally connected to local resources,” said National Alliance for Mental Illness Chief Advocacy Officer Hannah Wesolowski at a 988 anniversary event hosted by Hill.

4 million people contacted 988 in the first year. One hundred thousand new people reach out every week.

988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is Like 911, but Different

Here are 5 essential facts about the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline:

1. Help is live, local, and right away

You can contact 988 at any time of day or night. Your call will be routed to a crisis center based on your phone’s area code. If you aren’t at that location, you’ll be referred to your local center. A crisis counselor will respond live in an average of 47 seconds, according to Chief 988 Lifeline Officer Tia Dole.

2. You don’t have to be in crisis to call

Full-blown mental health emergencies are not the only reason to contact 988. “You can just have a bad day,” says Adrienne Breidenstine of Behavioral Health System Baltimore. She hopes the personal attention will make people more comfortable getting in touch. “We need to make sure people know this is a resource they can trust and is something they can rely upon.”

3. You can call about someone else

If you’ve been with someone having a mental health crisis, you may not have known what to do or where to turn. Should you be in the same position again, 988 will be there with advice for you and resources to help your person in need.

4. It’s more than just talking

You don’t have to actually talk on the phone when you contact 988. You can also text the number 988 or use the chat function at 988lifeline.org. Crisis counselors report that students and young adults often prefer to text or chat.   

5. Specialized help may be available

Some regions of the country prioritize populations especially in need, Dole reports. When you call, you may hear something like, “Press 1 if you are a veteran.” Certain crisis centers serve other at-risk communities, including LGBTQ+ and native Americans.  

988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline Fulfills National Need

988 was borne of necessity.

In 2021, almost one in 4 Americans experienced some form of mental illness. Suicide is now the 2nd leading cause of death among 10- to 34-year-olds, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has issued special advisories concerning young people. His most recent states, “We are in the middle of a national youth mental health crisis, and I am concerned that social media is an important driver of that crisis—one that we must urgently address.”

Students Step Up

Meera Varma is a student at University of California, Los Angeles. She convinced the school to print 988 on all student I.D. cards. That’s one reason she was a featured student activist at the 2023 Active Minds conference in Washington, D.C. Active Minds is a peer-to-peer mental health support group present in more than 1,000 campuses and communities nationwide.

Varma foresees a time when there will be less demand for the Lifeline, but only if “we as a society work to change the conversation around mental health.” She believes prevention starts with simple steps like “asking a 5-year-old how they are doing.”

As Varma says, when you contact the Lifeline about or simply listen to someone in need, you send the message: “You are loved, your struggles are valid, and you don’t have to go through this alone.”

About the author: Jenifer Joy Madden is a health reporter, certified digital wellness educator, and founder of DurableHuman.com. Her books include The Durable Human Manifesto: Practical Wisdom for Living and Parenting in the Digital World and How to Be a Durable Human: Revive and Thrive in the Digital Age Through the Power of Self-Design. Learn about her parenting classes here.

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