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As the country faces a profound mental health crisis among people of all ages, worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is preparing to launch the 988 line, a three-digit number that will automatically direct people in a mental health crisis to the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK). Starting July 16, anyone experiencing a crisis—or who has a loved one dealing with a crisis—can call 988 and reach a crisis counselor. Because calls to the line are usually directed to a person’s nearest local center (there are over 200 across the country), the new line’s success will depend on how much each state invests in hiring enough people to respond to the expected increase in calls after the 988 launch. So far, advocates across the country say they’re experiencing staffing issues and that they may not be ready to respond to the expected volume of calls. 

The line is expected to make it easier for people in crisis to get help and reduce their interactions with police, which too often lead to use of force or tragedy, especially for Black people. “Some of the goal [of the 988 line] is to, where possible, minimize unnecessary contact or connection with police departments when, in fact, what a person may need is connecting with either a mobile crisis worker or anyone within the mental health or behavioral health system of care,” Miriam E. Delphin-Rittmon, assistant secretary for SAMHSA, said at a virtual press conference earlier this month.  

Getting help when you or a loved one is in a moment of crisis can be scary, especially if you’re a person of color. Below, we’ve outlined what you can expect when you call 988. 

Deciding whether to dial or not

The line is not only meant to serve people who are thinking about hurting themselves, but also those who are experiencing a mental health crisis (including symptoms of anxiety, depression, or PTSD) or substance abuse crisis. 

Paola Mata, a software engineer living in Colorado, called the line in 2019 when she was going through a rough breakup. “I was feeling really, really down and starting to feel like a bad person, and I had some dark thoughts,” she tells PGN. “I just didn’t know what to make of those thoughts, and [I thought], it’s the middle of the night, I can’t call my therapist or anything, and everyone was probably sleeping. I just needed to talk to someone who would listen.” The line is available in English and Spanish, as well as other languages via a translation service, while the text/chat option is only available in English.

First, you’re redirected to your local center and asked to select your language

As soon as you dial the number—either the original 1-800-273-TALK or 988 starting July 16—an automatic greeting gives you options, including talking to someone in Spanish or identifying yourself as a veteran or member of the military or someone calling about one. Then you’ll hear music while you hold. Ward Wyatt, a 35-year-old communication strategist in Texas who’s experienced depression and alcohol use disorder and has called the line several times since 2020, has waited for as little as five minutes or, during the worst of the pandemic, up to 20 minutes. 

A crisis counselor answers the call 

Your call is automatically redirected to your nearest local center. If that center is unable to answer the call, it’s redirected to the national “backup network.” Once the counselor answers, they’ll likely ask questions about your mental state and whether you’ve ingested a substance and in what quantity. “They simply assess your emotional state and well-being,” Wyatt says. “You just have to let them know the truth, and how you’re doing. [They’ll ask] if you’re okay, if you’re truly okay, is there a loved one with you?”

You have a conversation with the crisis counselor

In Mata’s case, she remembers doing most of the talking. “I think it was maybe a 20-minute call; I was sharing how I was feeling, and I was crying over the phone. A gentleman picked up, and I was going on and on.” She continues: “In that discussion, I realized like, Wow, I can’t believe you think that about yourself. And I guess I was able to sort of see myself objectively; I was able to snap out of that moment and have some compassion and forgiveness for myself.” 

The counselor shares resources

When Ward called the line, the counselor shared websites, YouTube links, and resources, such as for meditation. “By the end of the conversation, not only is the situation de-escalated, and you’re feeling more calm, ideally, but you feel like you’re talking to a friend,” he says. He referenced a phrase he said is familiar to people experiencing addiction: “‘Any port in the storm,’ and [that means] you will reach for anything in times of desperation, to soothe. And I gotta say that that hotline is one of the safest ports in the storm we have in this wild ocean of mental health that we’re living currently in.”

If needed, a local mobile crisis team will come to your door. (In very rare cases, 911 emergency services will be involved.)

If you need it, the crisis counselor will connect you with a local mobile crisis team, a group of behavioral health professionals. If the person requires medical attention, the counselors will reach out to 911. But according to SAMHSA, less than 2 percent of calls to the Lifeline lead to emergency services like 911. Colleen Carr, director of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, said at the July 7 press conference: “[For] the vast majority of callers to the Lifeline, the call is the intervention.” 

If you or anyone you know is considering suicide or self-harm or is anxious, depressed, upset, or needs to talk, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741. For international resources, here is a good place to begin.