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Suicide prevention helpline has a new, shorter number – 988

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Suicide prevention helpline has a new, shorter number – 988
By Mark McCullough and Anna Dang ·

Connecting to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline just got easier with Saturday’s launch of the 988 dialing code. Designated by Congress in 2020, the new code works like 911 and is a critical step forward in transforming the crisis care system in America. 

AFSCME members in the behavioral health field are hopeful the new helpline number will help put more people in touch with the care they need and further reduce the stigma in seeking help. And in some cases, AFSCME members will be answering those calls.

“Studies have shown that many people make a suicide decision and within five minutes are acting on it, so every minute matters. And the 988 dialing code will get people in touch with the help they need even faster,” said AFSCME member Melanie Altaras, lead content writer at Lines for Life in Portland, Oregon. “988 is just easier to remember, easier to tell people and it helps put calling for mental health on the same level as calling 911 for physical health.” 

The 988 helpline is meant for people experiencing mental health crises, up to and including suicidal thoughts, and those worried about loved ones who need crisis support, according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The old number (1-800-273-8255) still works, but the new number is easier to remember and connects callers to an expanded suite of services. 

When someone dials 988, they will be connected with a trained crisis counselor. SAMHSA predicts the new code will help take pressure off the 911 system by redirecting mental health calls. Currently, fewer than 2% of lifeline calls require connection to emergency services. 

“We understand that this isn’t a magic wand that will make everything better, but it is an important step to getting more people the help they need in time,” AFSCME member Becca Ryan Roberts, a Lines for Life crisis intervention specialist who handles calls on the Veterans Crisis Line. “We are able to provide help in that moment, give them hope for at least another day and get them pointed in a direction that hopefully keeps them alive.”

In 2020, the U.S. had one death by suicide about every 11 minutes, and suicide is the leading cause of death for people 10 to 34 years old, according to SAMSHA’s information page on the 988 system. 

Altaras, Roberts and their co-workers at Lines for Life are bargaining their first contract after organizing their union earlier this year, so they will have a voice in the future of a rapidly changing industry. 

For Ryan Roberts, having a voice on the job is a huge victory for workers – and the people in crisis who are calling in. Ryan Roberts said unionized workers will be able to advocate for better staffing and resources and improved working conditions, all of which will allow staffers to provide exceptional care to people calling the 988 helpline. 

“We unionized not just for our quality of work but for the callers themselves because we want everyone to get the help they need when they need it,” Ryan Roberts said.

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