Dial 988 for mental health assistance

Starting July 16, the new number will connect callers to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

When you or someone you love is in the throes of a mental health crisis, you need help fast.

Ideally, you could pick up the phone and call or text an emergency hotline staffed with mental health professionals ready to provide counseling and resources in real time — like 911, but for mental health.

That’s what 988 will do beginning July 16.

The three-digit number will connect callers to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a network of more than 200 crisis centers staffed by real people ready to help.

“I think it’s fantastic. I think it’s long overdue,” says Carl Fleisher, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with UCLA Health. “For all the same reasons that 911 is a better idea than having to dial a 10-digit number for a physical crisis, just making it that much simpler for people to get access to somebody to talk to is incredibly important.”

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has received more than 20 million calls since it was established in 2005. Federal legislation creating the three-digit 988 number was passed in October of 2020. The Lifeline’s 10-digit number (800-273-8255) will also remain functional.

According to Lifeline statistics, for every person who dies by suicide each year, 316 people seriously consider ending their lives. While he was not involved with the establishment of the new number, Dr. Fleisher says being able to speak to someone in a time of crisis is incredibly helpful.

“When people are thinking about suicide, a big aspect of that is they feel disconnected or they feel like they’re a burden on other people, or both,” he says. “So to have a real person answer the phone – or even if it’s a crisis text to text you back – that can make a big difference in a moment where people feel like nobody cares, to actually see that there is somebody who cares.”

Talking brings relief

Not everyone considering suicide actually wants to die. It’s often about alleviating suffering, Dr. Fleisher says.

“People search around for what will make them feel better,” he says. “And if they don’t have hopeful expectations about treatment, or don’t think they can access treatment, then the only way people come up with to not feel the way they feel is to not exist, to not be alive. To me, with the people I talk to, it’s much more about seeking the end of suffering than it is about seeking death.”

That’s why the suicide hotline is so valuable, Dr. Fleisher says, because suffering is a mental state that can be relieved with talking.

“That’s exactly how human beings get relief from suffering,” he says.

Making the suicide hotline available through a three-digit number not only makes it easier to remember, but boosts the chance that young people might call or text. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among young people.

“I primarily work with teenagers, and teenagers are loath to call anybody on the phone unless it’s their best friend,” Dr. Fleisher says. “So to ask a teenager to call a 10-digit number, you might as well wait 10 years for it to happen.”

The creation of 988 also reflects growing awareness of mental health issues and the need to respond compassionately to crises, Dr. Fleisher says.

“The states and the federal government recognize that we’ve got a long way to go in providing the right types of support at the right time for people who are struggling with mental health issues,” he says. “So I think this is a fantastic start… in terms of modernizing the mental health response and bringing it in line with our response to physical health issues.”

Learn more about and make an appointment at UCLA Health Psychiatry and Behavioral Health.

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