When and How to Use 988, Mental Health’s New Emergency Hotline

How is 988 different from 911? What happens when you call? Experts answer these questions — and more.

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how to use the new US 988 hotline
If you're experiencing any type of emotional distress, dialing or texting 988 will connect you with a trained crisis counselor 24/7 starting this summer.
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Starting on July 16, Americans will have a new universal number to call or text for urgent help with a mental health crisis: 988. The number will become the new direct line to the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

Anyone who dials the number will be connected to a trained counselor who can help them with their situation, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and will help fund and implement 988.

Here’s what Americans need to know about mental health’s new emergency hotline — 988 — how it’ll work, and what will happen if you call.

When Should I Call 988?

Anyone experiencing any sort of mental-health-related crisis can dial 988, according to SAMHSA. Whether you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts, substance abuse issues, or any other type of emotional distress, this number will connect you with a trained crisis counselor 24/7.

According to National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the following are signs of a mental health crisis:

  • Feeling unable to go about daily tasks such as caring for your personal hygiene or changing your clothes
  • Isolating yourself from loved ones, coworkers, classmates, and others
  • Sudden mood swings, such as suddenly happy or calm after bouts of depression
  • Restlessness or pacing
  • Paranoia or feeling out of touch with reality
  • Violent or abusive behavior toward oneself or others
  • Suicidal thoughts or behaviors

You could also call, text, or chat on behalf of a loved one who may need crisis support, per SAMHSA.

How Will 988 Differ From 911?

People who call 988 will be connected to trained crisis counselors and local crisis care resources, which are distinct from 911, which dispatches paramedics, firefighters, and police to emergencies as needed, according to SAMHSA.

The intention behind 988 is that mental health crises will get an emergency mental health response, rather than a police or paramedic response, says Hannah Wesolowski, the chief advocacy officer at NAMI, who has been involved in helping develop and roll out 988.

Not sure whether to call 988 or 911? Per SAMHSA, mental health crises that don’t require additional intervention can be handled by 988 operators. In some situations, such as when a suicide attempt is in progress, or another scenario in which someone’s physical health or safety are involved, you should call 911.

Can I Still Dial the Old Suicide Prevention Hotline After 988 Launches?

Yes. The existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — 800-273-TALK (8255) — will still work. On July 16, both numbers will direct callers to the same services — 988 is intended as an easy-to-remember way to connect with help, SAMHSA's website states.

How Do I Reach 988?

You can contact the Suicide and Crisis Hotline by calling 988, texting 988, or chatting on 988’s website.

I Don’t Speak English — Are 988 Services Available in Other Languages?

Currently, 988’s text and chat options are available only in English. But the Lifeline crisis call center (which you reach by dialing 988 by phone) can help both English and Spanish speakers, and it uses a translation service for 250 other languages, per SAMHSA.

What Happens When I Call 988?

After calling 988, you’ll first hear a greeting message while your call is transferred to a local network crisis center based on your area code, states SAMHSA. (Veterans, service members, and their families can connect to a separate Veterans Crisis Line by pressing 1 after dialing 988.)

A trained crisis counselor will then answer your call, listen to what you’re going through, and offer to connect you with support as needed. This could include connecting you with a mental health professional for talk therapy, referring you to a nearby mental health care center, or alerting an emergency mobile crisis team who can help you in person.

SAMHSA's website states 988 and 911 systems will be coordinated so that callers can be referred to care that’s appropriate for their situation. It notes that currently, fewer than 2 percent of Lifeline calls require help from emergency services like 911.

If a local crisis call center can’t take your call, it’ll be automatically rerouted to a national backup crisis center with counselors who can help you.

What Happens When I Text or Chat With 988?

Text and chat messages sent to 988 will be answered by a group of Lifeline crisis centers spread throughout the country. Per SAMHSA, these chat and text services will be expanded over the next few years to include crisis counselors at a local level. (That means when the number launches, your text or chat may be answered by a crisis counselor from anywhere in the country, but eventually SAMHSA has plans for services to be expanded so that texts and chats are also answered by local crisis counselors from your area.)

Once you’re connected, a crisis counselor will listen to you to better understand your situation and connect you with the same resources and support you’d receive if you dialed by phone instead.

With the chat feature, you’ll need to answer a pre-chat survey before connecting with a counselor who’s best suited to help you with your individual concerns. You may receive a wait-time message, and if demand is high, you’ll receive a list of helpful resources based on your survey responses while you’re in the queue. At this point, SAMHSA says, you can either wait in the text message queue or call 988 directly instead.

Once you’re connected with a crisis counselor, they’ll chat with you through the hotline website to connect you with services you may need.

What About My Privacy?

People who call 988 are not required to provide personal identifying information (like their name, age, or location) to connect with a counselor. According to SAMHSA, the greeting message states that calls may be monitored or recorded for quality assurance, meaning crisis centers can use call recordings for training purposes — but beyond that, your privacy is protected, and your call is confidential. SAMHSA notes it does not sell data.

A counselor may ask for personal demographic information only if it’s needed to save lives, to refer someone to ongoing services, or to assess the line’s performance and needs, according to SAMHSA.

How Will Veterans Reach the Veterans Crisis Line Once the 988 Transition Takes Place?

Before 988, veterans, service members, and their families could connect to Lifeline by dialing 800-273-TALK (8255) and pressing option 1. That feature won’t change once 988 launches, according to SAMHSA. As of July 16, you will be able to connect to the Veterans Crisis Line by pressing 1 after dialing either 988 or 800-273-TALK (8255).

I’ve Read That Some States Are More Prepared for the 988 Rollout Than Others — Does That Mean These Services May Not Be Available in My State on July 16?

Federal law passed in 2020 requires each state to help provide 988 services — such as local crisis call centers, mental health care centers, and mobile crisis response teams — and to enact statewide legislation accordingly, NAMI experts explain.

But not all states are on track for the July 16 launch of 988, as NAMI’s 988 Crisis Response State Legislation Map shows.

Starting on July 16, calling 988 will connect individuals across the United States to the Suicide and Crisis Hotline. But whether states have taken steps to handle the potential increase in caller volume that is expected with the switch to the easier-to-use three-digit number depends on the state, according to SAMHSA.

Additional reporting by Christina Vogt.