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988 crisis number hopes to create faster access to help

On Saturday, the U.S. will transition the 10-digit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to 988.

On Saturday, the U.S. will transition the 10-digit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to 988 — an easy-to-remember three-digit number for 24/7 crisis care. The lifeline, which also links to the Veterans Crisis Line, follows a three-year joint effort by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to put crisis care more in reach for people in need.

The former Suicide Prevention number 1-800-273-TALK isn’t going anywhere and can still be dialed. But the goal of this new number 988 is to create a fast and memorable number for those in need to call much like 911.

"We want individuals who feel they really may be in acute distress to call 988. We want that to be as common and feel as OK as reaching out for help for any type of other emergency," said Deepa Avula. Avula is the Director of the Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

The National Suicide Hotline Designation Act, signed into law after the passage of bipartisan legislation in 2020, authorized 988 as a new three-digit number for suicide and mental health crisis.

The new 988 number, which individuals can also text, is expected to bring up to 30% more calls per year.

Avula says North Carolina’s crisis center located in Greenville is adding more staff to make sure it is ready to handle the additional volume. But she feels confident the call center will be able to handle the increase as it already has a 98% call answer rate.

"The other 2% of calls are also answered, they are just answered by a backup center. Other states are around 60% or 70%. North Carolina is second highest in the nation," said Avula. "So we really feel our state is ready."

Jaren Doby, a social worker and therapist with Novant Health, calls the 988 number a positive change.

"The 1-800 number was a bit lengthy for folks," Doby said. "You dial 911 in the event of an emergency of some kind. Dialing 988 in the event of any mental health emergency should create a great convenience for a lot of folks to remember as well."

NCDHHS in collaboration with the community, local and state partners, has been preparing for the launch of 988 and received a $3.3 million federal grant in April to transition to the new number.

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Sarah Delia covers criminal justice and the arts for WFAE. Sarah joined the WFAE news team in 2014. An Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist, Sarah has lived and told stories from Maine, New York, Indiana, Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina. Sarah received her B.A. in English and Art history from James Madison University, where she began her broadcast career at college radio station WXJM. Sarah has interned and worked at NPR in Washington DC, interned and freelanced for WNYC, and attended the Salt Institute for Radio Documentary Studies.