Rollout of new national mental health hotline faces obstacles

If you or someone you know has talked about contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also find them online at

A new national mental health hotline will launch in July. Like 911, the hotline will be available by dialing three digits: 988. The idea behind it is to connect people in a mental health crisis to experts trained in how to respond. But many agencies may not be prepared. American Foundation for Suicide Prevention CEO Bob Gebbia joins Stephanie Sy with more. Warning: This segment references suicide.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And let's pick up on one part of how people can get help.

    A new national mental health hot line will launch next month. Like 911, the hot line will be available by dialing three digits, 988, an equivalent hot line for mental health services.

    But, as Stephanie Sy reports, some experts are concerned about whether the hot line is ready for prime time.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Judy, the idea behind 988 is to connect people in a mental health crisis to experts trained in how to respond.

    And while it is an opportunity to get people the help they need, with less than a month to go before its launch, a recent national survey found many agencies at the state and local level don't feel prepared for it.

    For a closer look at these concerns, I'm joined by Bob Gebbia, CEO of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

    Bob Gebbia, thank you for joining the "NewsHour."

    This hot line is not explicitly for suicide prevention, but, certainly, when a person gets to that point, they may need to turn immediately to this kind of resource. What do you hope 988 will do?

    Robert Gebbia, CEO, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: We're very excited about the potential that 988 has for bringing attention to this need.

    It's a big need for crisis response. Many people who struggle are not calling for help. And many, about half of those who die by suicide are not in any treatment at the time of their death. So this is a way to close that gap. And we want the public to know what's available.

    So we're very excited about the potential that it has.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    But, Bob, since 2005, there has aspen this National Suicide Prevention Lifeline already.

    How has that been working out? And what kind of challenges has it had in failing to maybe deliver on its promise?

  • Robert Gebbia:

    Well, you have to look at it historically.

    And crisis services have been undervalued and underfunded. So when the Lifeline was set up, it didn't receive anywhere near the kind of funding it needed to meet what has been a dramatic increase in demand since it was set up. So, again, this is an opportunity to increase that funding.

    The thing about it that's really hopeful is two things. One, it's easy to remember, right? So it's the equivalent of 911 for emergency — medical emergencies. And now we have something that people can easily call and easily remember when they're struggling with their mental health.

    But, second, it really provides an opportunity to really invest for the first time in crisis services, not just the call capacity, which has to be invested in, or else people will not get their — the response that they need. But it also allows us to really rethink what happens when there's an-in person response, when someone is in real emergency and needs someone there.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    But, Bob, let's talk about that call capacity, because that survey I mentioned, the RAND Corporation did a survey last year that found that, although the government has allocated around $282 million to strengthen network operations, to strengthen local crisis call capacity, states and locales responded in that survey that they don't feel prepared.

    So what is the problem there?

  • Robert Gebbia:

    Yes, well, I think it's going to take some time.

    There is a system, and it works. It's — it needs to be improved dramatically. Especially as more people learn of 988, we do anticipate an increase in volume, right?

    But I think the most important thing now is to get those investments. About four states out of all of the states have approved tacking fees on to telecom bills, which the legislation, the federal legislation allows. About another nine have found other state funding sources and approved those. And about a dozen or so are now looking at legislation.

    So it's moving, but it's moving far too slowly at the state level. Only half have really invested in. And we think the fees are a great way. It's a few pennies per person on the telecom bills that would go to support and sustain and increase crisis services in the local centers. But our federal government has a role too. And they need to continue to put funding in for building that capacity.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    What other concerns might you have?

    I mean, 988 is supposed to roll out on July 16. That's less than a month.

  • Robert Gebbia:


  • Stephanie Sy:

    What other concerns do you have as they rolled this out about capacity?

    Because The New York Times did an analysis that found that 17 percent of callers to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline last year actually hung up while they were waiting. Is that of great concern to you at this point as this rolls out?

  • Robert Gebbia:

    Wait times should be going down, not going up. And they have been going up.

    The way the system works, when a caller calls the current Lifeline, and now it'll soon be 988, what happens is, they're routed to the closest crisis center, local crisis center to their call, where they calling from. And so, when that center doesn't answer, it rolls over to backup centers.

    We need to make sure while we build out the system, that the backup centers have the capacity, so that call time, wait time doesn't increase, and people don't — calls that get dropped and people don't hang up because they know they can't get the response.

    The worst thing is when people take that brave step. You're struggling with your mental health. It takes a lot to step forward and to call. And we want to make sure, when people call, they get connected and they get help.

    And the other thing I'm concerned about is to make sure, as we invest in the capacity, that we also change crisis response. It's been built around law enforcement responding. And law enforcement was never trained or prepared to do this. It was a de facto arrangement. When you call 911. You get a law enforcement response.

    We need to change that to mobile crisis teams, trained mental health professionals, coordination between 911 and 988 in the future, so that calls can be transferred to 988, if that's the appropriate response, and to make sure, when there is an in person response, which is the exception — it's not most calls — most can be resolved over the phone — but when it's needed, that it's a trained mental health response, and that people also go to respite centers, rather than to emergency departments, where they can wait for hours and even days without getting any mental health care.

    That system is not prepared either. So, there's a lot resting on this. It can be life-changing and lifesaving if it's done properly.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Bob Gebbia, CEO of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

    Thanks so much for joining the "NewsHour," Bob.

  • Robert Gebbia:

    My pleasure to be with you. Thank you.

  • NOTE:

    988 launches across the United States on July 16, 2022.

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