What Is the 988 Crisis Hotline? And How Can It Help You in a Mental Health Emergency?

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If you’re dealing with a mental health crisis, contemplating suicide, or need someone to talk to right away… dialing the new 988 hotline may just save your life. Yet even though many call this “the 911 for mental health”… this service is actually much more than that.

So what is this hotline exactly? What happens when you call? And when should you use it? This guide will walk you through everything you need to know.

Key Facts About the 988 Hotline

  • 24/7 Availability: If you’re contemplating suicide, are in emotional distress, or just need someone to talk to, call 988 now. Staff are on call to offer support anytime you need it.
  • Fully Confidential: All conversations are confidential and private.
  • Free to Use: This service is supported by private donations and government funding. It’s free to call.
  • Text or Call: 988 isn’t just for phone calls. You can choose to text if you prefer. Or you can chat online.
  • Not Just For Suicidal Thoughts: Suicide prevention is a key service offered through the 988 number. But they also provide resources and support for panic attacks, depression, anxiety, loneliness, substance abuse, and many other mental health challenges.
  • Works in All 50 States: You can call 988 from anywhere in the U.S. and get help right away. (Canada plans to launch the 988 number in the fall of 2023.)

Note: For serious (non-emergency) mental health challenges… you may consider IOP therapy. This treatment can help provide practical coping skills, address the root cause of your problem, and quickly turn your situation around. Call 314-388-2225 to learn more.

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What Happens When You Call?

When you call 988, you’ll receive care as quickly as possible. Support is available 24/7. And your call is confidential and free. Here’s how it works:

  • First, you’ll hear a message telling you that you’ve reached the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.
  • They’ll play you a little hold music while they connect your call.
  • A skilled, trained crisis worker who works at the network crisis center closest to you will answer the phone.
  • This person will listen to you, understand how your problem is affecting you, provide support, and share any resources that may be helpful.

For a more detailed explanation, visit the official website of the 988 Lifeline. Now one thing many people aren’t aware of is that…

This Service Is Not Completely New

Yes, the 988 phone number was recently launched in July of 2022. However, the organizations running the service and answering calls have been serving people for decades.

One organization is the “988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.” They were previously known as the “National Suicide Prevention Lifeline” and have operated their crisis hotline since 2005. They don’t work alone though. The lifeline is made up of a network of over 200 local crisis centers, combining local care and resources with national standards and best practices.

For example, if you call 988 from Missouri, you’ll be connected directly with a counselor from Behavior Health Response.

BHR has been providing crisis counseling in Missouri for over 30 years. And at Plural Healthcare, BHR is our go-to recommendation for 24/7 support. We give their number to all of our clients in case they ever have a mental health breakdown or need emergency support.

What’s great is you can more easily remember the new 3-digit number compared with a longer 1-800 or local number. Instead of having to look up the number for BHR in a moment of crisis, you can just dial 988.

Research Shows the 988 Hotline Works

Dozens of independent studies have looked into the effectiveness and impact of the crisis hotline.

For example, a 2022 study showed that 90% of suicidal individuals texting the crisis line found that the conversations were helpful. Nearly half of them also reported being less suicidal by the end of a single text conversation.

Another study from several years ago analyzed 1,085 calls to the crisis hotline. It concluded: Significant decreases in suicidality were found during the course of the telephone session, with continuing decreases in hopelessness and psychological pain in the following weeks.”

The 988 hotline is not a perfect intervention though.

By definition, the counselors support people dealing with intense mental health crises. Several callers are on the brink of attempting suicide… and many do sadly follow though on the attempt.

This does nothing to take away from the people these crisis centers do help though. And 988 can still plays a vital role in supporting you or a loved one.

Consider a 2020 analysis that raised criticism of crisis hotline effectiveness. At the end, it still concluded: “Despite the fact that research regarding the effectiveness of crisis line services remains limited, studies overall provide initial support for such services.

More importantly…

988 Is Only One Part of Mental Health Care

The scientific research highlights the need to not rely solely on the crisis hotline. The 988 number is one part of helping prevent suicide and caring for those in crisis. Other vital interventions include:

  1. Early support from friends and family. Spotting the warning signs of suicide in a loved one early can make all the difference. You can help the person get care before the situation reaches a crisis point.
  2. Additional care after calling 988. A 2017 study showed that providing follow-up care to callers of the crisis hotline dramatically reduced the likelihood of suicide. Nearly 80% of the interviewed callers reported that the intervention stopped them from killing themselves, and 91% said it kept them safe.
  3. Intensive outpatient therapy. IOP is a rapid intervention for people dealing with serious mental health challenges. It can provide practical coping skills, address the root cause of their problems, and help people turn their situation in a short amount of time.

When Should You Call 988? Suicide Prevention and Much More

The 988 hotline is a resource for anyone dealing with a mental health crisis. Call if you or someone in your life is:

  • Contemplating suicide or harming themselves in any way.
  • Experiencing a panic attack or feeling like they’re going to lose control.
  • Dealing with the after-effects of a natural disaster, a mass shooting, physical/emotional abuse, or any other traumatic event.
  • Struggling with addictions or substance abuse.
  • Suffering from anxiety, depression, or any other mental health challenge.

The 988 number is not just for crisis situations though. It can also provide referrals for ongoing care and resources in your community (such as a therapist, psychiatrist, mental health clinic, or support group).

Just let the staff know what you’re looking for when you call, and they’ll help direct you to the care you need.

You Can Help Prevent the Suicide of Others

You can play an essential role in helping prevent the suicide of those you love. The 988 Lifeline has identified warnings signs to look out for:

  • Talking about wanting to die or to kill themselves
  • Looking for a way to kill themselves, like searching online or buying a gun
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or isolating themselves
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Extreme mood swings

If someone you know exhibits any of these behaviors, they may be at risk for suicide — especially if the behavior is new, has increased, or seems related to a painful event, loss, or change. Please seek help by calling 988.

For more information on how to prevent suicide, or to learn about other potential risk factors, visit the 988 Lifeline’s website.

988 vs 911

A major reason for launching the 988 number is many people currently call 911 when experiencing a mental health emergency.

The problem is that 911 isn’t set up to address mental health issues. Callers may end up in the emergency room, waiting for hours (or days) to get care, or interacting with law enforcement professionals who are not trained to respond to mental health crises.

A recent study of 37 different 911 call centers (across 27 states) found that about two-thirds of the call centers “had not received specialized behavioral health crisis training.”

As psychologist Benjamin Miller, president of Well Being Trust, told NPR: “If you look at the data from the police, about 20% of their total staff time is spent responding and transporting individuals who are experiencing a mental health crisis. […] 2 million people with serious mental illness were booked in jail.”

Having people call 988 for mental health concerns means people get better care for their needs… and it allows first responders to instead focus on medical, fire, or safety related emergencies.

That said, the 988 number is not appropriate for every situation. First responders are better equipped to handle threats to safety or to provide medical care. And sometimes you may want to seek emergency help with 911 instead.

When You Should Call 911 Instead of 988?

  • Imminent Risk of Harm: If you see someone who’s at risk of hurting themselves or others, call 911.
  • If You Have Already Harmed Yourself: If you’ve already made a suicide attempt (or have immediate plans to do so), first responders can provide assistance right away.
  • Dangerous Drug Side Effects or Overdose: If someone you know has overdosed on drugs or alcohol, call 911 to get them emergency medical care.
  • Medical Emergencies: First responders are trained and able to provide immediate assistance for heart attacks, strokes, and other life-threatening emergencies.

Does 911 Answer If You Call 988?

No. Calling 988 will connect you to a trained crisis counselor. These counselors are not affiliated with law enforcement. And they will listen to your situation, provide support, and connect you to whatever additional resources you need.

If someone is at imminent risk for suicide, meaning that a suicide attempt will occur shortly or is already in progress, 911 may be be dispatched, in keeping with current best practices. They may also be dispatched if there is an imminent threat to other people’s safety.

Using the 988 Lifeline decreases the overall need for 911 services. First, the Lifeline offers an alternative to calling 911, which is what most people currently do in a crisis. And second, 988 operators are better equipped to deal with mental health issues. They can give appropriate support to help deescalate suicidal ideation or other crisis situations. 98% of calls to 988 do not require emergency responders at all.

Alternatives to Calling 988

Other 24/7 Crisis Support Centers

Although the 988 Lifeline is the most well known (and has the easiest number to remember), there are other resources available for immediate help in a crisis like:

  • The Veterans Crisis Line – If you’re a veteran or know someone who is, you can call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1. You can also chat online or text 838255.
  • The Disaster Distress Helpline – If you’re struggling after a natural disaster, call or text 1-800-985-5990.
  • National Sexual Assault Hotline –  If you or someone you know is a victim of sexual violence, call 1-800-656-4673 or chat online.
  • The Trans Lifeline – If you’re a transgender person in crisis, call 1-877-565-8860 to speak with a transgender person in your area.
  • The Trevor Project Lifeline – If you’re an LGBTQ youth… and are considering suicide, in crisis, or are struggling with your mental health… call 866-488-7386 or text 678-678. You can also chat online.

Intensive Outpatient Programs

The crisis hotline can be a lifesaver “in the moment”… helping you deal with a panic attack or intense thoughts of suicide. However, if you’re dealing serious mental health challenges, calling the hotline may not be enough.

And you may want to consider IOP therapy to help address the root issue.

IOP provides a unique blend of group therapy, personalized care, and practical coping skills. And it’s designed to help when life feels like it’s ‘slipping away from you’ – or when regular visits with a therapist or psychiatrist don’t seem to be enough.

The goal is to help you quickly turn things around, start healing, and find peace again. No matter whether you’re dealing with the loss of a loved one, severe depression or anxiety, difficult relationships, or traumatic experiences… IOP treatment can help you get through those tough times.

To learn more, and to see if IOP may be right for your situation, call our St. Louis center today at 314-388-2225. We’ll spend some time getting to know you and your situation. And we’ll help you determine what mental health care is best.

Community Mental Health Organizations

If your situation does not require immediate crisis care, you can also reach out to local mental health organizations. Many provide free or low-cost counseling and other services.

For a list of mental health organizations in your area, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) website.

No matter what you’re dealing with – no matter what you’re going through – help is available. You are not alone. If you or someone you love is struggling, please reach out to get support today.