The 988 lifeline is here! What you need to know

Life & Style

If you’re having an emergency, you call 911. But what about a mental health crisis? Starting today, you can call 988, which is the new, shortened version of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s previous and still functioning 1-800-273-8255.

The easy to remember number aims to make the resource more accessible amid a mental health crisis in the U.S. intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic. In order to find out about 988’s potential impact, I spoke to experts to learn more.

While a shorter number may not seem like a big deal, this accessibility could make “all the difference,” says Brad Kennedy, chief operating officer at Driftwood Recovery, an addiction and mental health rehabilitation center in Texas, “not just for individuals experiencing suicidality, but for their loved ones who are also less likely to recall complex numbers during emotional distress. It will comfort those struggling with suicidality to know that they can engage in an anonymous, non-judgmental conversation with someone highly skilled in dealing with suicide prevention.” Instead of trying to memorize the full number, 988 is a fantastic resource, says Dr. Lauren R. Khazem of the department of psychiatry and behavioral health at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

“Folks who live in rural places (or) who may have disabilities preventing transportation, these hotlines are so vital in order to help people develop steps to keep themselves safe in times of crisis,” she says, even for those who already work with a mental health professional. “Certainly it’s an important resource for people who don’t have access to mental health care services. … But as a best practice, in our suicide prevention treatments, we offer the lifeline as a resource to our clients to use, and we encourage them to use it when we are unavailable when they are needing on-the-spot support for intense emotions or intense crises.”