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More than a hotline: 988 meant to ease access to mental health services

988 is the new federally mandated dialing code used to connect those in need to 24/7 suicide prevention services. A call or text to the number links individuals with trained counselors who are part of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline network. (Photo courtesy of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration)

988 is the new federally mandated dialing code used to connect those in need to 24/7 suicide prevention services. A call or text to the number links individuals with trained counselors who are part of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline network. (Photo courtesy of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration)

Mental health emergencies in the United States haven’t gotten the attention and support they require, resulting in increased suicide rates over past decades – particularly among teens, young adults and people of color.

Enter 988 – the federally mandated dialing code used to connect those in need to 24/7 suicide prevention services. A call or text to the number links individuals with trained counselors who are part of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline network.

The Federal Communications Commission requires phone providers to make 988 accessible by July 16. The Lifeline network’s number (1-800-273-8255) will remain in operation, but the idea is to provide an easy-to-remember and faster way to get help.

“The 988 lifeline … will help thousands of people overcome crisis situations every day, and it will serve as a universal entry point so that no matter where you live, you can reach a trained crisis counselor who could help,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said at a pre-rollout forum in May.

The Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, or AHCCCS, is responsible for launching 988 in the state. An advisory committee has been assembled to guide implementation and ensure the new system meets the needs of Arizonans.

Last year, the state received a $135,000 award for planning; an additional $1.9 million grant will help the state recruit, hire and train additional 988 counselors.

One goal of the new hotline is to reduce interactions between those experiencing a mental health crisis and police, who often are dispatched to handle such situations. A study this year by the Vera Institute of Justice examined 911 calls in nine U.S. cities, including Tucson, and found about 19% involved behavioral health situations.

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