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Opinion The 988 hotline could be transformational — if done right

A man uses a cellphone in New Orleans in August 2019. (Jenny Kane/AP)
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Everyone is familiar with 911. But another three-digit code could soon enter Americans’ normal lexicon: 988.

As of July 16, that is the new number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Anyone experiencing a mental health emergency can call or text that number to connect with trained professionals, who can provide support and offer referrals for treatment. The old suicide prevention number will continue to exist, but the goal of the shorter code is to make the hotline more accessible and boost awareness.

This is a sensible idea in response to a serious problem. In the United States, a person dies by suicide about every 11 minutes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for Americans ages 10 to 24 — the second for children between 10 and 14. The police and other emergency services, who are often called in to respond to mental distress, are not equipped to handle such situations. The 988 hotline seeks to decouple these services from law enforcement and link callers to counselors with knowledge of local resources.

The hotline is noteworthy for another reason: It was the product of bipartisan legislation, signed into law by President Donald Trump in 2020. The Biden administration has since invested around $400 million to help states prepare. So far, it appears to be a rare policy with support from both sides of the aisle.

Preparedness and long-term funding, however, remain persistent concerns. The National Suicide Hotline Designation Act left the question of funding largely to states. Just 21 states have enacted some form of legislation to fund the hotline, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy, and only four have passed bills for phone-bill charges, as they do to run 911. A survey by Rand Corp. earlier this year found that fewer than half of behavioral health program directors felt confident their jurisdictions were prepared for the launch. This has led to fears of lengthy wait times and more dropped and unanswered calls, which are already at rates of 30 percent or higher in some states. If local call centers are overburdened, calls will be redirected to national backup centers, where responders have less knowledge of local services. This is of particular concern in remote or rural areas, where further support and treatment could be harder to reach.

Officials are trying to scale up infrastructure to meet expectations of growing demand. Experts believe a more accessible hotline will improve crisis care, despite concerns about service delivery and adequate resourcing in the transition period. We hope they are right. But authorities must work efficiently to increase staffing and support for the hotline, and states should find sustainable ways to fund it.

If officials can build on the system’s strengths and work quickly to minimize its shortcomings, 988 could be transformational. We should not allow it to be another missed opportunity on mental health.

If you or someone you know needs help, you can call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or 800-273-TALK (8255). You can also text a crisis counselor by messaging the Crisis Text Line at 741741.