988 is Telehealth’s Newest Service — Here’s What You Need to Know



America’s emergency lifeline for suicide and mental health crises is now live with 988. This comes at a critical time when so many in the country are in need of accessible and immediate mental health care.


Today, the state of mental health in America suffers from the compounding effects of inflation, the threat of recession, and the leftover effects of the pandemic. In light of these ongoing challenges, the mental health care system suffers from being understaffed and unable to meet the growing demand for care. To illustrate, in 2020, under 50% of US adults received care for mental health conditions. In 2019, only a little over 12% suffering from substance use disorders received the appropriate treatment at specialty facilities.


One major obstacle to overcoming the mental health crisis in America is the lack of knowledge about where to seek help. Fortunately, with the launch of hotline 988, patients can now get easier access to the mental health care that they need.


What is 988 and how does it work?


988 is a suicide and crisis lifeline that connects callers to a trained counselor at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline crisis center. You can reach them by calling, texting, or chatting 988. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network of more than 200 crisis centers across the nation. These centers, which are supported by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration as well as local state sources, help thousands of callers overcome crises every day. Once these centers pick up your call, you will be connected to a local counselor.


This counselor will then offer you support, and talk you through a plan for safety and recovery as an immediate measure. They will also be able to provide you with services and mental health resources near you.


Why is 988 necessary?


Prior to 988, individuals in need of mental health care would dial 911. However, 911 isn’t equipped to handle mental health needs, and as such would often fail to respond appropriately to callers needing behavioral attention. This is because they have limited staff with behavioral health crisis training and thus do not know how to navigate specialized responses to these calls.


988 is modeled after 911, allowing those in need of immediate mental health attention a number that’s easier to remember. While the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has been in existence for decades, shifting to the number is meant to provide callers with an easier three-digit number to remember.


What are the benefits of 988?

Providing Americans with a means to quickly reach care and support in times of crisis can yield immense benefits in terms of accessibility. Adopting a telehealth model allows 988 to connect with patients who are limited by location, finances, mobility, or any other means. Moreover, telehealth provider Wheel states that multistate licensing allows mental health providers to boost their reach. This is particularly important for areas with a shortage of mental health workers. Having a lifeline number that is as memorable as 911 could also raise awareness not only about what resources are available, but also the immediacy necessitated in responding to mental health emergencies. This may be important as those suffering from mental illnesses might be discouraged by the feeling that their troubles won’t be recognized. As psychiatric prescribing providers, we at iTrust Wellness Group have discussed the stigma around mental health at length. This stigma can be paralyzing for those who are in need of psychiatric help. But potentially shifting perceptions about mental health through 988 can encourage those in need to reach out to the appropriate authorities. Perhaps one of the biggest benefits of having a mental health lifeline is the reduction of emergency department visits due to mental health crises. Many times, those experiencing behavioral emergencies are directed to ERs and, as a result, are charged with a large sum. But providing the proper care to individuals in their time of need not only significantly reduces the risk of harm and heightens the immediacy of response — it also dramatically reduces the need for emergency department visits. In this way, not only does it expand accessibility, but it also gives patients the necessary, specialized care that they need with far fewer financial barriers. With the launch of 988, Americans are given an easy-to-remember lifeline that will get them the help that they need. Even with the significant shortages in mental health care services, 988 serves as a shining light to bridge accessibility and heighten awareness.


Penned by Minerva Kate Elton (2022)

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