This month marks the one-year anniversary of the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, which replaced the previous National Suicide Prevention Lifeline with a single three-digit number for mental health, substance misuse, and crisis services. With oversight and funding from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and assistance from partners like Crisis Text Line and The Trevor Project, 988 consists of independently operated and funded call and text/chat centers across the country. When individuals in crisis contact 988, trained crisis counselors at these centers listen, provide support, and share resources if necessary. Access to 988 can play a critical role in improving depressed, suicidal, or overwhelming feelings—in fact, SAMHSA estimates that 98% of individuals contacting 988 receive the crisis support they need in the moment. SAMHSA has also identified the current 988 system as a first step toward evolving crisis care to include mobile crisis units, which provide in-person responses, and stabilization centers, which provide a safe place to stay for individuals in crisis.
Even its current form, however, 988 represents a momentous advancement in the effort to connect more Americans with crisis services. In May 2023, for example, 988 answered 45% more calls, 52% more chats, and 938% texts compared to the previous lifeline in May 2022. In total, 988 answered nearly 160,000 more contacts in May 2023 compared to May 2022, and the average time to answer these contacts decreased from 140 seconds to 35 seconds. 988 has also launched specialized services for the LGBTQ+ population, and SAMHSA just announced the addition Spanish language text and chat services. Other specialized services will likely follow for hearing impaired individuals and American Indian/Alaska Native people.
In 2022, Congress supplemented the establishment of 988 with several pieces of legislation containing significant investments and policies to advance behavioral health. The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act (BSCA), passed in June 2022, for example, provided onetime support for 988 and increased support for the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. The BSCA also provided funding for Project AWARE at SAMHSA, which empowers education agencies through training for school personnel, increases awareness and detection of mental health issues, and connects youth and families to needed services. In addition, Congress directed the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to assist schools with expanding school-based health services through Medicaid and funded initiatives at the U.S. Department of Education to hire and retain mental health professionals providing these services.
In the Consolidated Appropriations Act (CAA), enacted in December 2022, Congress built on these accomplishments by reauthorizing the Garrett Lee Smith Suicide Prevention Program, which funds mental health programs for college-age students, as well as several programs to improve the behavioral health workforce. The CAA also bolstered crisis-intervention programs by directing guidance and funding to providers and improving payment for their services.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) also acted throughout 2022 to expand access to community-based mental health services. In partnership with the Department of Education, for example, HHS has worked to facilitate the use of Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program funds to support school-based behavioral health services. SAMHSA also launched the Mental Health Crisis Response Partnership Pilot Program to improve access to mobile crisis services in high-need areas.
988 is part of a series of investments to address Americans’ mental health needs
Despite this progress, significant challenges remain in the effort to strengthen 988 and connect individuals in crisis to behavioral health services. For example, although state governments carry the responsibility for funding and operating 988 call centers, only a handful of states have passed legislation to secure long-term financial support for the lifeline through telecommunications fees. A recent study, moreover, found that only around half of states have earmarked sufficient funding to meet increased 988 center costs. Due in part to insufficient funding, call centers can also struggle to hire and retain qualified staff and answer rates can vary significantly by state. Improved data collection and analysis concerning 988 services is also necessary to help identify gaps in crisis care and improve lifeline implementation.
On the federal level, ongoing negotiations in Congress could result in cuts to appropriations for 988, which is an alarming prospect given that SAMHSA estimates outreach to the lifeline will increase by up to 50%—to a total of around 9 million contacts—in FY 2024. States will also require additional federal support to develop and implement mobile responses and stabilization units and publicize the full range of 988 services. A recent survey by the Pew Charitable Trusts, for example, found that only 13% of U.S. adults knew about the existence and purpose of 988; awareness was higher among white adults and individuals with a college education compared to Black adults and individuals with a high school degree or less.
Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) will continue to advocate for additional funding and resources to bolster the 988 lifeline and transform the behavioral health crisis system more broadly. Continued bipartisan support is necessary not only to ensure access to existing services, but also to build the next generation of care to meet the growing demand from Americans in crisis.
Recommendations for addressing Americans’ mental health needs and other issues are available in TFAH’s 2023 Pain in the Nation report.