WASHINGTON —Soon, a new three-digit national phone number will be available to help people struggling with mental health challenges

On July 16, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline will transition from its current 10 digit number to 988, similar to the 911 emergency number. The formation of 988 comes as suicide rates have increased by a third in 20 years and spiked among young people during the pandemic.

What You Need To Know

  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline will transition to 988 beginning in July

  • Americans will be able to dial 988, similar to 911, to connect to a mental health counselor

  • The Lifeline received more than 3.3 million inquiries in 2020, according to a federal report

  • Rates of suicide increased by a third over the past 20 years, and spiked among young people during the pandemic

“There’s nothing in the world that prepares you to lose someone to suicide, it’s such a sudden and traumatic experience,” said Laura Mayer, the program director of PRS CrisisLink, a regional call center in Northern Virginia.

Mayer’s work hits close to home. When she was 15, her father died of suicide. A few years later, she lost a close friend to suicide as well. Now, she uses her own experiences to help others in despair.

“People can feel that I have a different understanding of what they’re going through,” she said in an interview with Spectrum News.

Soon, getting crisis counselors like Mayer on the phone will be easier. Beginning in July, Americans will be able to dial 988 and will be connected to a mental health counselor through an expansion of the Lifeline.

But, many call centers are already straining to meet the current demand. Once the system launches, call volumes are expected to grow.

Callers could face delays or be unable to reach a counselor at all.

"The level of capacity is a big concern and I think every community should be concerned,” Mayer said.

"There’s a disconnect between the funding and the promise of what these things are supposed to do with a workforce shortage, coming out of the pandemic,” she added.

Two years ago, the system received more than 3.3 million inquires, but only responded to 85 percent of calls, 56 percent of texts and 30 percent of online chats, according to a federal report.

“This is really both a transformative opportunity, but also recognizing it is building on the success of the lifeline that has been in existence since 2005,” said Laura Evans, the Director of National and State Policy at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

The 988 system was authorized under a law signed under then-President Donald Trump two years ago. States can impose a new tax on cell phone usage to support it, similar to how 911 call centers are funded. So far though, only four states have moved to actually impose these taxes - Virginia, Nevada Washington and Colorado.

“This is a federal state partnership, it will require federal, state government, public payers, private payers, we really need everyone at the table,” Evans said.

Mayer says the transition from the Lifeline’s 10-digit hotline to 988 will require more than upgrading equipment.

“The biggest barriers will be the training that’s required for a broader group of people that are going to be reaching out,” Mayer explained.