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Debut of 988, the 3-Digit Suicide Hotline, Will Save Many Lives

A new national suicide prevention hotline – 988 – will debut on July 16, making it easier for people in mental distress to reach out for help

A new national suicide prevention hotline – 988 – will debut on July 16, making it easier for people in mental distress to reach out for help. 

After the launch, people can call, text or chat the number, and be routed to counselors of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The workers are trained to listen, provide support, and connect callers to resources. The hotline can also aid family and friends of someone who may be considering suicide. 

The 988 phone number will supplement the current 1-800-273-TALK (8255) number, marking an important advance for mental health care, said Jennifer Christian-Herman, Ph.D., vice president of Mindbody Medicine at Blue Shield of California. “It's a powerful indication of how seriously we're taking suicide and mental health as a country. The 988 line is going to help save many lives.”

Increasing Accessibility

The hotline will prove critical for a few reasons, Christian-Herman noted. Perhaps the most important is its improved accessibility - the three-digit code is easy to remember and quick to dial, which is especially important when someone is in crisis. 

JCH headshot
Jennifer Christian-Herman

The new 988 format also will divert people from relying on 911 and channel them directly to mental health specialists. “Having an easily dialed 988 number could be the difference between life and death for someone in crisis,” Christian-Herman said. 

The 988 line’s texting feature will provide another important way for youth in distress to reach out. Younger people are more likely to text, and so the medium could really help. For ages 10-14 and 25-34, suicide was the second leading cause of death in the year 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the latest data available from the CDC). That same year, according to the CDC, here were nearly 46,000 deaths by suicide, almost twice the number of homicides.

In recent years, a variety of factors have placed an additional strain on mental health, including COVID-19, economic struggles, gun violence and political tensions. 

“These factors are all increasing the demand for behavioral health care,” Christian-Herman said. “In response, the health care industry is increasing our focus on expanding access and supports for behavioral health.” 

Reducing Stigma

One silver lining from COVID-19 is that the mental strain of lockdowns and illness appears to have increased people’s willingness to ask for help. A recent Blue Shield of California/Harris poll found that nearly half of Californians (49%) who have ever sought professional help for mental health did so for the first time during the pandemic. 

While it might seem disconcerting to see such high numbers, it’s also a good sign, Christian-Herman noted. “With all the challenges of the past few years, we're seeing people talk more openly about behavioral health which indicates that the stigma surrounding seeking help is decreasing."

She believes making the hotline number so easy to remember builds on reduced stigma, enabling people to reach out sooner and thus preventing mental health issues from spiraling out of control.

A Long-Term Approach

It will still be challenging to get everyone access to mental health care before things reach crisis stage. Currently there is a shortage of behavioral health clinicians, especially for underrepresented populations and specialties such as child psychiatry. 

With that said, Blue Shield is working in several ways to ensure all members have access to the care and support they want and need.   The health plan offers members a statewide network of mental health clinicians, programs and inpatient care when needed.   

Routine screening for mental health conditions in primary care and pediatrics is also important. Blue Shield is partnering with medical groups and health systems to scale an integrated medical/behavioral health model, called collaborative care, which is effective in identifying and addressing common mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.

For youth, Blue Shield of California's BlueSky program provides resources for youth, families, educators and caregivers to promote emotional well-being. 

“As we continue to build out this ecosystem, it is important to meet people where they are,” Christian-Herman added. “We have to think about all the things that we can do to ensure that individuals have the care and support that they need.”  

More mental health resources are listed below, and on our BlueSky website.

  • National Suicide Prevention Line at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) *This number will still be active even after the 988 number goes live on July 16th
  • TEEN Line
  • The Trevor Project
  • Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741) 
  • Blue Shield of California’s BlueSky and the Child Mind Institute offer parents these supportive guides to address youth mental health needs.