988: Suicide prevention hotline is taking calls at this new number

988 is a new suicide prevention hotline number that anyone experiencing a mental health crisis can call starting Saturday

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988.

Starting on Saturday, individuals experiencing suicidal thoughts or other mental health crises can call a new three-digit hotline, 988, to get help.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline was previously reachable through the 10-digit phone number 1-800-273-TALK, which will still be operational as 988 rolls out, but the three-digit number is meant to help people "better remember and more easily dial" the number to seek help, according to American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Project Director John Draper, Ph.D.

"This is a service of over 200 local centers across the country who have been doing this work for years, so what we're talking about, essentially, is a new number but not a new service…that has been proven to reduce emotional distress and suicidality for the people that reach [out]," Draper explained in an interview with Fox News Digital.

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In 2021, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline reached 3.6 million people, and Draper expects the new three-digit lifeline to see even more activity.

The hotline is connected to more than 200 local centers that answer emergency mental health calls, but if the people staffing those hotlines cannot pick up a call, it is transferred over to a "national backup center" to ensure all callers get help. Counselors finish a standard online training course before they pick up phone calls.

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"When a person reaches that line, the first thing that a counselor does is listen to them and help them feel understood. We're all humans…and since we were born, and we're in distress, the first thing we're looking for is comfort — human comfort — and that's the first thing that people receive when they contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline," Draper said, adding that the support callers receive from counselors helps them better "able to marshal their resources to take care of themselves."

The National Suicide Prevention lifeline can now be reached at 988.

The National Suicide Prevention lifeline can now be reached at 988. (REUTERS/Zoran Milich)

About 25% of callers who phone into the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline are experiencing "some kind of suicidal crisis," while the other 75% "are in great emotional distress," Draper added. He expects to see even more callers experiencing mental health crises — or those who know people experiencing mental health crises — to reach 988.

The new number is also expected to alleviate some pressure on 911 operators and local law enforcement officers who might otherwise be responding to mental health calls.

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Mental health emergencies "have always needed" a service separate from police, fire and medical emergencies, Draper said.

"When people are in a mental health emergency, what they need is a caring response, not a scary response. When you call 911, you have — typically — dispatches. They send people to your door, but 90% of the time, people who call our service were able to resolve the crisis [or] reduce the crisis state over the phone," he continued.

In some cases, local crisis centers will be able to dispatch mobile 988 responders to certain emergency situations, but not all local centers have the resources to do so currently. Draper hopes that, over time, more mobile crisis responders will be established.

"Everybody is interested in making sure we can shift…what has been historically a public safety response to mental health emergencies to a public health response to mental health emergencies, because police don't want to be responding to mental health emergencies unnecessarily, and neither does EMS. Those resources should be reserved for public safety circumstances or medically dangerous circumstances, and that is very rarely the case with mental health crises," Draper said.

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Some 911 centers are working to reroute certain mental health calls to 988 centers, and Draper expects more centers to do so in the future.

Suicide is the No. 12 cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). About 14 in every 100,000 Americans died of suicide in 2020. Emergency room visits for attempted suicide among adolescents, in particular, rose significantly during the coronavirus pandemic.