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How does 988 work?

Lila Seidman, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Health & Fitness

Help for a mental health crisis is now just three digits away: 9-8-8.

Early data show that people are increasingly reaching out to a national mental health hotline launched July 16 as an easy-to-remember alternative to 911. But how does it work? And is it "friendly"?

The basics

Instead of being directed to police, callers (or texters) are connected to compassionate listeners trained to talk about crises ranging from suicidal thoughts to drug addiction. They can even advise people who aren't in crisis but hope to help a struggling friend. It's free and staffed around the clock.

"We want to make sure that we're giving people effective evidence-based care in a crisis, rather than giving them care that results in them cycling through incarceration, hospitalization, emergency department visits, over and over again, which has historically been how we've addressed crisis in this country," said Hannah Wesolowski, chief advocacy officer for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Before 988 went live, those seeking help had to dial a 10-digit 800 number to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Calls to that number — (800) 273-TALK — will still be answered.

 

A bump in usage

In August, the hotline's first fully operational month, its overall volume — including calls, texts and chats — jumped 45% across the country, compared with the same month last year for the Lifeline, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Meanwhile, the average time it took for a response decreased year over year from 2½ minutes to 42 seconds. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a part of Health and Human Services, oversees the hotline.

Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services, which leads the crisis call response for most of Southern California, said its call volume doubled the day 988 went live.

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