Editor’s Note

In a previous version of this article a source was directly quoted and identified who had not given explicit permission to be quoted or identified and that quotation and identification has now been removed. We regret the error. One resource listed at the end of this article was also removed as the service it uses has been criticized for its data sharing policies.

What’s the 411 on 988? As of July 16, 2022, the new national three-digit Suicide and Crisis Lifeline number ‘988’ came into effect. The easier to remember number improves on the number from the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, 800-273-TALK (8255) which will still continue to function. After dialing the number, people who are suicidal or in any other mental health crisis will be connected to a trained mental health professional. 

The primary goal of this new number is to make it easier for people to call for help when they need it. The 988 hotline fills a big gap that exists in mental health crisis care today, especially for those living in areas that do not have reliable access to mental health services. 

Before the launch of 988, individuals seeking mental health support often called 911. However, because the 911 hotline is not oriented to specifically address mental health concerns, callers often did not receive the care and support that they sought. With the transition to this hotline, the United States has been able to expand emergency medical care to specifically address mental health.

Incoming calls to the 988 number can trigger immediate dispatches of mobile crisis teams, day or night, to anyone and everyone who is experiencing a mental health crisis if necessary. Texts as well as online chats for the 988 number are also available for people who are deaf, hard of hearing or speech disabled. 

The implementation of this three-digit number is intended to become instrumental in addressing immediate mental health concerns, but how does this affect the Black community? One perceived problem with contacting the 988 number is that the police may be called, which could deter some people who are experiencing a mental crisis. It is important to understand the impact of over policing of the Black community, which has eroded trust between the community and police. 

This distrust and fear of the police force may have an impact from the number of Black people accessing the 988 hotline. After the launch of 988,  many people who have had challenging experiences with the mental health system voiced their concerns about 988, warning others not to call it without knowing the risks involved which may include police involvement, involuntary treatment at emergency rooms or psychiatric hospitals, and the emotional and financial toll that occurs as a result of these experiences

The AmNews also spoke with Aneri Pattani, author of the KHN article “Social Media Posts Critize the 988 Suicide Hotline for Calling Police. Here’s What You Need to Know.” When asked about her perception of critics against calling 988, she stated that “to my knowledge, the emergency rescue policies that people were concerned about haven’t changed. Nor has there been a release of new data to show how often emergency rescue has been used since 988 launched or if there are racial disparities among the callers involved in emergency rescue. Without that data or any changes to policies, it seems unlikely that critics of 988 will change their mind about those concerns.” Pattani acknowledges that there are people who have valid concerns about 988’s policies around emergency services and consent, but there also are “hundreds of thousands of people who are helped by the hotline and are able to find resources, referrals, and a kind ear through it.” 

James Plastiras, the director of Public Information at the New York State Office of Mental Health, has been heavily involved with collecting statistics and other information associated with the 988 number in New York State after its launch. Plastiras said that in July 2022, “12,154 callers were connected to a crisis counselor in a New York State 988 Contact Center. In nearly all cases, the calls, texts, or chats are resolved through the initial contact with crisis counselors, or with assistance from local mobile crisis services that are able to help de-escalate the crisis at hand.” 

In very few cases, if the caller is assessed by the trained counselor to be at a high risk of injury or death, 911 emergency services may be contacted, according to Plastiras. It is important to note that 911 is usually contacted at the request of the caller. Plastiras went on to explain that “nationally, less than 2% of all contacts to 988 result in 911 involvement.” 

For New York specifically, Plastiras stated that “988 implementation has relied heavily on input from a diverse array of community stakeholders, which has helped ensure rollout is done in a racially inclusive way.” There are various diversity, equity and inclusion requirements that were included in the legislation that implemented the 988 hotline number. For those communities that may be reluctant to call or engage with emergency medical services or police, 988 will connect them with a trained crisis counselor who will listen and provide support and resources, rather than immediately dispatching law enforcement or emergency services. 

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis you can use these resources in addition to 988:

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