Here’s what you need to know about 988, the new mental health crisis hotline Photo: Adobe Stock Photo

Starting Saturday, people in need of any kind of mental health support can call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988.

The new dialing code does not replace the already existing Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255, but it makes the resource easier to remember during emergencies. The shortened version may make the mental health resource more accessible to people experiencing distress, experts say.

People in distress can also chat with a trained counselor by visiting 988lifeline.org. Here’s what you need to know about the new hotline.

What is the 988 hotline?

The new three-digit code is a direct line for people experiencing mental health distress to seek help from trained counselors. The hotline is staffed 24/7, allowing people to seek help at any time.

In 2005, the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration launched the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline under the phone number 1-800-273-8255. Since then, it has received more than 20 million calls, according to the Lifeline website.

The new dialing code 988 routes callers to the same service, but it will be easier to remember than the original phone number, said Margie Wright, executive director of the Suicide and Crisis Center of North Texas.

Why is a new number needed?

People might find it difficult to remember a 1-800 number when they’re experiencing mental health distress, Wright said.

The shorter three-digit code “is better than having people try to remember a long number,” she said. “Once [the new number] gets out there and advertised, I think it will make things simpler.”

The new 988 code is easy to associate with 911 and 211, the social service hotline. Blanca Garcia, director of mental health resources at the Grant Halliburton Foundation in Dallas, said this association will make it much easier for people to remember the hotline dialing code during emergencies.

Who can call the new hotline?

Anyone in the U.S. who needs mental health support or who is with someone in mental health distress can call or text the number to seek help. They do not need to be in danger of suicide to reach out to the lifeline. The same is true of the preexisting 1-800 number.

About 3,309,000 adults in Texas are living with a mental illness, according to Mental Health Texas. And 754,000 adult Texans have had serious thoughts of suicide in the past year.

Despite the high numbers of mental health illness in the state, 61% of Texans who needed mental health support in Texas did not receive any, according to Mental Health Texas.

The new hotline is free to use, as is the 1-800 number.

Can I still call the old hotline?

Yes, the current Lifeline phone number, 1-800-273-8255, will still remain available after the new three-digit code is launched.

What happens when I use the hotline?

When people call, text or contact the hotline service via chat, they will be connected to trained counselors who are part of the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline network, according to the Lifeline website. The network is made up of about 200 local crisis centers, and callers will usually be connected to the center closest to where they’re calling from, Garcia said.

When people connect with the 24-hour service, the counselors will listen, provide support and connect callers to additional mental health resources if necessary.

How will the new number increase access to mental health resources?

Many people often call 911 when they need mental health support because they can’t remember the 1-800 Lifeline number, Garcia said. Every year, millions of 911 calls involve a person experiencing an emergency related to a mental health or substance use disorder, according to the Pew Research Center.

But police officers aren’t always trained to deal with mental health crises and can’t be expected to provide the proper support during those situations.

“What I’m hoping is that now with 988, officers won’t be involved as much with some of these crisis calls,” Garcia said.

She also noted that many communities, especially among people of color, won’t call 911 when experiencing mental health distress because they might not have good relationships with police. And if they didn’t have the 1-800 number memorized, they would have no one to turn to for help.

Now, with a three-digit number that’s easier to remember, those communities may seek mental health support more often, Garcia said.

Amy Grosso, a board member of the Central Texas chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said she anticipates an influx of people calling the Lifeline when the new number becomes available Saturday. She said people are much more likely to use an emergency resource when it’s widely talked about and easily memorized.

Grosso used the rapper Logic’s song “1-800-273-8255,” named after the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, as an example. After Logic performed the song at the Grammys in 2018, the Lifeline saw a spike in calls that the British Medicine Journal said was a result of the song’s widespread attention.

Hopefully, this new Lifeline code will also spark an increase in calls, Grosso said.

Garcia hopes the new number will help continue national conversations on mental health. Putting the 988 number alongside 911 and 211 could help normalize it and make it a little less intimidating, she said.

“Now we’re saying that physical health and mental health are both health, and it’s OK if you’re struggling with each and there’s a way for you to get immediate help,” Grosso said. “And it also helps people know that if it is a mental health crisis, that there is a number they can call specifically to get specific mental health help and be connected with the proper resources right off the bat.”