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988: The new, shorter number will connect people in crisis to National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Six crisis centers in Tennessee answer local calls to lifeline
988 could save lives
Posted at 5:10 PM, Jul 13, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-10 22:40:54-04

988 — these three numbers could save a life.

It's the new number to call or text in a mental health crisis, and it goes live on Saturday.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is shortening the original 10-digit number 1-800-273-TALK to the shorter, easier-to-remember number: 988.

State-supported call centers, like Family and Children's Service in Nashville, are preparing for the transition to 988.

"Crisis Services, a service of Family and Children's Service, has a longtime history of answering lifeline calls since 2012. We are ready for 988," said Shannon Huffman, a director.

Mental health advocate Brian Sullivan is a suicide attempt survivor. He says shortening the number is going to get people in a crisis to counselors quicker.

"The calls that come into call centers can range from all sorts of things, from grief to job loss, to depression to suicidal ideations," said Sullivan.

Sullivan added in a crisis, he believes 988 will be easier to remember.

"When you're in that moment, you're not thinking about the phone numbers in your head and going through [them.] Maybe a genius could maybe remember the full number, but I certainly couldn't," Sullivan said.

In Tennessee, six call centers take local calls made to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Thirteen call centers also pick up when you call the state's mental health line 855-CRISIS-1. Last year, crisis centers took 158,000 calls.

If the transition to 988 leads to more calls, the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services thinks the infrastructure can handle it.

"We've already asked for millions of dollars that the state's given us to create infrastructure that many states don't have," said Marie Williams, commissioner of the state department. "They already approved three brand-new crisis stabilization units in our state coming online this year to augment what we have.

Williams said the state will keep track of the call volume after the official switch to 988 and take it from there.

"We're covering every county, so it will depend upon what we see," Williams said.

Additionally, officials hope 988 becomes the home of mental health calls and not 911.

"Right now, if you call 911 if you're struggling with a mental health crisis or substance abuse crisis, you're competing with other people who might have other crises at the same time as you. This number is dedicated to those who are struggling with behavioral health — a mental illness or substance use crisis. And so the fact that it's dedicated means we'll get people in where they need to go quicker, which is great," Williams said.

NewsChannel 5 asked Metro Nashville Emergency Communications Center how many mental health calls dispatchers took in 2021.

In total, there were 73,216 incidents. Of course many of these calls warranted a police or fire response. However, several thousand were from suicidal people that crisis call centers are best equipped to serve.