‘988 is going to help us save lives’: New national 3-digit hotline aims to improve access to suicide prevention, crisis support

MADISON, Wis. — Starting Saturday, access to suicide prevention, mental health and substance abuse support will get seven digits easier, as the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline will replace the 10-digit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin helped spearhead the federal plan in her National Suicide Hotline Designation Act, which passed in 2020. The previous 10-digit number, (800)-273-8255 will still work, routing callers to the same Suicide Crisis Lifeline. 

RELATED: New 988 hotline is the 911 for mental health emergencies

The new line is not just for people who are contemplating suicide. Counselors are also skilled in discussing self-harm, addiction, domestic violence and other mental health issues. If a caller needs immediate medical attention, 988 will collaborate with local police or hospitals.

The hope is that 988 becomes as embedded in people’s minds as 911 and provides more specific services.  

“Sending our police to a mental health crisis can be a misdirected use of our law enforcement and first responder resources and may not give those in crisis direct connection to compassionate and accessible care and support they may need,” Sen. Baldwin (D-WI) said at a press conference Friday.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, the new number is expected to generate 93% more emergency calls over the next year in the state, fielded by dispatchers with Family Services of Northern Wisconsin. The number doesn’t include texts or online chats. 

“Capacity building has really been a main priority for Wisconsin and really every other call center in the nation,” said Caroline Crehan Neumann, Crisis Services Coordinator for DHS.  

Right now, they have a staff of about 26 counselors — a number the state hopes to increase with $1.7 million in federal grant dollars over two years.  

“A minimum of 85% of those grant dollars are going directly to family services so they can hire additional call counselors, supervisors, expand their space (and) look into a remote workforce,” Neumann said.  

Last year, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline answered about 2,900 calls from Wisconsin.

Baldwin said suicide is the second-leading cause of death of young people ages 10-24. Over the past couple of years, there’s been an increase in suicide seen among the LGBTQ+ community, and veterans as well.  

“I hear a similar sentiment shared, again and again, to quote: ‘Of the men and women who served with me, I’ve lost more to suicide than to combat,’” said Mary Kolar, the secretary of Wisconsin’s Department of Veterans Affairs.  

She hopes 988 gives everyone — but especially those who fought for our country – greater access to someone to lean on.  

“Any veteran in crisis can now call 988, press the number 1, and be connected with the veteran crisis line,” Kolar said. “You will be connected with a real person qualified to support veterans.”

When Baldwin first crafted the bill in 2019, she saw the crisis creeping into one of Wisconsin’s most important industries.  

“Here in Wisconsin and I think [Senator Cory Gardner] was also observing in Colorado (an) increased rate of rural resident suicide for agricultural workers and farmers because of the major financial stress,” she said.

This is why greater accessibility could be the first step for all those deep in struggle.  

“988 is going to help us save lives,” Baldwin said.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues or considering suicide, there are resources available to help. Calling 988 nationwide will connect you to the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. In Dane County, Journey Mental Health Center has a 24/7 suicide prevention hotline at 608-280-2600.