The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has helped to connect individuals in crisis and in need of mental health services to trained crisis professionals to receive much-needed, life-changing help. To make it easier for callers in crisis to reach an operator at a local crisis center, the Lifeline number, 1-800-273-8255 (1- 800-273-TALK), will transition to a 3-digit 988 number starting July 16, 2022.

In addition to the new number, which is expected to enhance access for people in crisis, the Lifeline is hoping the crisis continuum will be further developed to have the ability to dispatch mobile crisis teams or specially trained responders rather than having to rely on law enforcement intervention. This also relieves emergency rooms, the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) said in a report.

“Law enforcement isn’t always appropriate. We’re preventing individuals from going to jail, which may not be the appropriate setting for them to receive the care they need,” Director of National and State Policy at Vibrant Emotional Health Laura Evans said.

The transition has sparked concerns about staffing. People are anticipating that the call volume will increase because of the shorter number, which can lead to centers being overwhelmed.

Another concern is a lack of funding to address centers that may be short-staffed. Evans said that mental health services have been historically underfunded and undervalued. If a center doesn’t have enough staff, this may lead to calls being unanswered.

Evans mentioned that call volume surges are not uncommon. For instance, calls increased following the Logic song, “1-800-273-8255.” She said local centers are being prepared to handle the volume.

The local centers typically receive funding through state, local, private and federal funding. SAMHSA increased federal resources for both network operations and local crisis call center capacity, SAMHSA said.

“We have to focus on what we can do better to save individuals who are in crisis, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’ll serve well in other areas when people have strong mental wellness,” Evans said.

When someone calls the Lifeline, they are directed to a trained crisis worker working at a crisis center close to the area their phone number is registered in. The center has about 30 seconds to answer a call, otherwise, the call gets rerouted to a center in the national call backup network.

The network is made up of over 180 centers nationwide. If necessary, the centers will do interventions or follow-ups.

Mental health is linked to suicide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The New York State Office of Mental Health’s (OMH) goal is to promote mental health services with a “particular focus on providing hope and recovery for adults with serious mental illness and children with emotional disturbances,” OMH’s Director of Public Information James Plastiras said.

Similar to the Lifeline, states are expecting more calls following the transition because mental health has been gaining more attention recently. Plastiras said the onset of the pandemic has impacted the rise in mental health awareness and people experiencing mental health crises.

“The fear, uncertainty, economic difficulties, traumatic loss of loved ones and social isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increase in anxiety and depression for many Americans,” he said.

For New York to address the anticipated increase in call volume, Gov. Kathy Hochul’s Executive Budget proposes $35M in new resources for 2022-2023 and $60M next year for the expansion of call center capacity,
Plastiras said. “These funds build on existing $17M in OMH federal grants underway in 2021-22 for start-up resources and support linkages to New York’s community-based crisis system,” he said.

Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in the United States. In 2020, about 12 million adults thought about committing suicide and 1.2 million attempted suicide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data said.

New York has seen an increase in the number of calls made to the Lifeline from 2019 to 2020, according to data from the Suicide and Prevention Lifeline’s website said.

Although data suggests that call volume from New York increased to the Lifeline, the number of suicide deaths in New York City remained stable in 2020 compared to prior years, according to provisional data from a New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene report.

Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in the United States. In 2020, about 12 million adults thought about committing suicide and 1.2 million attempted suicide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data said.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline was initially launched by SAMHSA and Vibrant Emotional Health in 2005. After the transition, individuals will still be directed to the Lifeline if they dial the original number, for 24/7, free and confidential support. They can text 988 for help as well.

“It’s hard to remember the original number. It’s virtually impossible if you are in a crisis,” Evans said.

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