Help is now only three digits away.
988, the new mini-dialing code that connects callers to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, debuts Saturday, July 16 nationwide.
People can call or text 988 to be connected to counselors who are part of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline network. Trained professionals can listen, provide resources, or help anyone struggling with mental health, substance abuse, or suicidal ideation or intent — an alternative to 911 for those facing an immediate crisis.
“You’re going to have much less of a delay time, and when people are in crisis, minutes matter,” said Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, who chairs the Orange County Homelessness and Mental Health Services Subcommittee. “It really could save lives.”
The service is free, confidential, and available 24/7 — no matter where the person resides. Aside from by phone, it can also be utilized in a chat format at 988lifeline.org.
In California, efforts have been made to ensure call centers are fully staffed and ready to help.
There are 13 call centers, both public and private, throughout the state that take calls from the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. Southern California has two: Los Angeles and San Diego.
California invested $20 million in September to make sure the call centers are supported ahead of the 988 rollout; officials called it a “first step toward building a robust statewide call center network to support 988.”
In the legislature, lawmakers are working on aptly named legislation, AB 988, to shore up support for the call centers — including the appointment of a 988 crisis services director and a requirement for centers to utilize technology to allow transfers between 988 and 911 centers. In its current format, the bill also includes a new surcharge to fund crisis services.
“The main issue for me is avoiding tragedies we have seen in the past related to mental health calls,” said Quirk-Silva, a joint author of the bill.
She said the new 988 number, as well as the bill, will end up saving the state money as well.
“Many times where there are mental health crises, sometimes these individuals are arrested. Sometimes they get taken straight to an emergency room, and it could be two or three attempts before they actually get the help they need,” Quirk-Silva said.
Eleven years ago, Quirk-Silva was a member of the Fullerton City Council. Then, Kelly Thomas, a 37-year-old man who was homeless and diagnosed with schizophrenia, encountered Fullerton police officers.
He was beaten by officers — with fists, batons, and a Taser gun — and died from his injuries multiple days later. The brutal incident set off a national outcry and plea for change in how law enforcement interacts with people struggling with a mental health crisis or illness.
“Having a national 988 line will broadly begin to address some of the issues. We see when families who struggle with somebody suffering from a crisis, they often first will call 911, and then, of course, there would be law enforcement that would go out to address the situation,” Quirk-Silva said. “In this case, now calling 988 will allow them to interface with a provider that has expertise in mental health issues.”
The federal government has provided over $280 million to help states create systems that will do much more, including mobile mental health crisis teams that can be sent to people’s homes and emergency mental health centers, similar to urgent care clinics that treat physical aches and pains.
The 988 system will build on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, an existing network of over 200 crisis centers nationwide staffed by counselors who answer millions of calls each year — about 2.4 million in 2020.
“If we can get 988 to work like 911 … lives will be saved,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra.
Other ways to get help
“Hope has a new number, and it is 9-8-8,” Kimberly Williams, president and CEO of Vibrant, the administrator of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. “This historic transition to 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline will promote help-seeking and increase awareness and accessibility to this life-saving resource.”
While the 988 number is up and running, the current Suicide Prevention Crisis Line phone number 800-273-8255 is still available.
Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services offers English- and Spanish-speaking counselors around the clock at 877-727-4747. Korean-speaking counselors are available from 4:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. daily.
And the OC Warmline, offering support and resources to Orange County residents, is still available around the clock, seven days a week at 714-991-6412 by call or text. The OC Warmline also has a chat option online at namioc.org/oc-warmline.
Veterans can contact the 24/7 Veteran Combat Call Center at 800-927-8387 to speak to other combat veterans.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.