New Crisis Hotline 988 For Mental Health Issues

The existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPL) is a 10-digit number — 1-800-273-TALK — and it has seen a rise in call volume in recent years.

Still, the number isn’t easy to remember or call in times of crisis, according to mental health experts. A three-digit number makes it a lot easier.

Enter the new mental health crisis hotline number: 988. The nationwide hotline is available starting in mid-July.  

The new number is one important component of a comprehensive effort to move mental health care away from hospitalization only, and toward community-based solutions. Crisis Call Centers, part of the NSPL network, are one component of this component of this comprehensive effort.  

Bill Howard, Director of Crisis Supports and Services, BDHDS, and his team are overseeing this massive effort within the Commonwealth. He is enthusiastic about the opportunity to improve Virginia’s mental health services throughout the five behavioral health regions, some of which offer community detox capabilities, access to medication and stabilization services. Through crisis call centers, callers will have increased access to community-based stabilization, potentially reducing the need for a hospital visit which can be alarming, traumatizing, and lead to further destabilization in a crisis.

“By keeping you in your community, we are giving you a warm hand of care, instead of an automatic trip to the hospital, which isn’t always necessary or appropriate,” says Howard. “Our goal is to create this interim step, so our primary regional call centers are a key priority.” 

“We are taking this opportunity to set up our regional crisis call centers to not only answer the new suicide prevention hotline calls, but also to expand access to the entirety of the crisis care continuum that we are attempting to build out.”

Before 988, there were a variety of mental health help numbers depending on the issue. The new number puts all of them under one umbrella. “It means an end to operating out of silos and being bounced from one number to another, to get services. No one in this state should have to struggle or search for needed support,” emphasizes Howard.

Laura Mayer, Director of PRS CrisisLink, agrees. “988 is a really important piece of what we’re doing to build out the crisis care continuum in the state of Virginia. Right now, there’s a number that goes to mobile crisis. You have regional crisis lines. You have acute mental health service lines. It’s hard to get a good grasp of what peoples’ needs are when all these things are living in different spaces. 988 will become the central number.” PRS, a behavioral health nonprofit serving Northern Virginia, operates as the Regional Crisis Call Center for most of Virginia.

The new number further supports efforts to implement a public health approach to helping those in crisis. 

“This is a new system being built by the people in the trenches, all with a commitment to helping people access the services they need, when they need them,” says Howard. “All the work behind the scenes should be seamless to the caller. 

“It should be as simple as, I need help, I call this number, I get help.”