Next month, a new national suicide prevention hotline number will go into effect.

The number — 988 — is simple and straightforward, in the manner of the 911 emergency line. The idea is to connect someone in the middle of a mental health crisis to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. That line currently uses a 10-digit number to direct calls to crisis centers around the country.

“It is a national step forward out of the shadows of stigma that prevent too many people from getting help and into a new era when mental health care is easy to get and normal to talk about,” Congressman Seth Moulton, one of the bill’s primary sponsors, said in a statement when the measure passed into law two years ago. “This will save tens of thousands of lives every year.”

The new number is set to go live July 16. And Moulton is certainly correct — it’s a straightforward upgrade that has the potential to save lives. It is much easier to remember 988 than to have to stop and look up the lifeline’s current number, 800-273-TALK (8255).

But there is a deep problem — there may not be enough people on the other end of the line.

Fewer than half of the public health officials tasked with helping to roll out the new hotline said they were confident they were prepared for the task, according to a study released earlier this month by the RAND Corporation. The officials cited a lack of financing, staffing and infrastructure.

More than half of those surveyed said they weren’t part of planning for the 988 launch. Only 16% reported having money set aside to support 988 operations. While the law passed at the federal level, implementation of the program is left up to the states.

“Our findings have confirmed what many advocates and experts feared: Communities throughout the United States have not had the time or resources to adequately prepare for the debut of the 988 hotline number,” said Ryan McBain, a policy researcher at RAND.

Massachusetts fares far better than most states when it comes to readiness for the change. But it still has much work to do.

The news comes at a time when the need for mental health resources has never been greater. On average, adjusted for age, the annual U.S. suicide rate increased 30% between 2000 and 2020, from 10.4 to 13.5 suicides per 100,000 people. The isolation and upset of the COVID-19 pandemic has only made things worse, especially for young people.

“There’s a lot more to be done, frankly, before we’re really up and running and ready for July,” Kathy Marchi, CEO and president of Samaritans, Inc. — one of the five nonprofit centers answering calls in Massachusetts — told WGBH news this spring.

“That will present a great challenge to us in both volume and the capacity, the skill, the training of the folks who answer our phones,” she said. “Can it be done by us? It could be, but it’s going to be different work than what we’re doing right now.”

Samaritans needs more volunteers to handle the expected surge in calls that will come when 988 goes public. And those volunteers will need to be trained to help callers find the right level of service.

There are also technical and organizational challenges.

“We’re not hooked into the 911 system,” Marchi said. “We’re not hooked into emergency departments. We’re not hooked into, you know, a statewide system that would help us find a bed or psychiatric resources for someone.”

State officials say the 988 system will be largely ready to go by July 16 and has set aside $10 million in next year’s budget to get it rolling. And the five organizations Massachusetts is partnering with are top-notch.

As Moulton told WGBH in April, “I can’t say that I’m 100 percent satisfied with the progress all the states are making toward meeting this deadline and truly being ready to go in July. But we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

The bottom line? If you live in Massachusetts and are in crisis, call 988 come July 16. Meanwhile, however, the RAND report and the state’s own officials make it clear there’s still work to be done.

Trending Video

Recommended for you