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The 988 mental health hotline, an idea with Utah roots, is set to roll out nationally

AP — 988-Mental Health Hotline, August 11, 2019
Jenny Kane
In this Sunday, Aug. 11, 2019, photo, a man uses a cell phone in New Orleans. Quick help for suicidal thoughts and other mental health emergencies may soon be as easy as 9-8-8. The United States’ first nationwide three-digit mental health crisis hotline goes live on Saturday, July 16, 2022.

The U.S. is set to transition from the 10-digit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to a three-digit suicide and crisis lifeline.

The number is 988, and it is designed to be as easy to use and remember as 911. However, instead of being connected with police or paramedics, 988 will connect callers with trained mental health counselors.

How it works

The new suicide and crisis lifeline is free, confidential and always available.

The 1-800-273-8255 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline will remain active as well. But starting Saturday, July 16, 2022, the number will be routed to the same place as 988.

After connecting, callers can select the Veterans Crisis Line or the Spanish language Crisis Line. If neither is chosen, a caller with a Utah area code will be routed to the Utah Crisis Line, which is operated by Huntsman Mental Health Institute.

If the call is not answered within three minutes, it will be sent to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline backup network or to someone in a different state.

Nichole Cunha, a crisis administrator with the Utah Department of Health and Human Services, said when someone texts 988, they will at first be routed to a national network. Utah will begin to accept localized texts and chats in the next several months to a year.

Utah’s journey

In 2013, a good friend of Utah state Sen. Daniel Thatcher sought his help after his suicidal son was sent away from an emergency room. They were told to come back if the boy hurt himself.

Thatcher struggled with depression himself and considered suicide when he was young. He knew that despondent people in crisis may lack the wherewithal to seek out help or to remember the 10-digit national suicide lifeline number. Further, he found that many Utah crisis lines went straight to police dispatchers or voicemail.

Why wasn’t there a service for mental health that was similar to 911?

“If you get help, you live. It really is that simple,’’ Thatcher said.

After mentioning the idea to the late U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, the idea received national attention and in 2020, Congress passed the bill designating 988.

Although that bill was passed only two years ago, Utah has been working on improving mental health care and suicide prevention for nearly a decade. While the state’s suicide rate has been consistently higher than the national rate, one study found telephone and chat crisis lines could prevent 36% of projected future suicide attempts.

How prepared is Utah?

Rachel Lucynski, the director of community crisis intervention and support services with the Huntsman Mental Health Institute, said Utah is as prepared as it can be. The release of the 988 crisis number is surrounded by a lot of unknowns, but she said call volumes are monitored every day so staffing adjustments can be made.

The Huntsman Mental Health Institute is also trying to hire more mental health professionals to meet the needs of the crisis line.

“If you’re not sure of who to turn to, please call 988 and our team is happy to help anyone navigate those situations,” Lucynski said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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