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The Biden administration is launching a new phone number for mental health crises

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced more than a quarter billion dollars for a new three-digit mental health crisis helpline, which is coming in July of next year. The funding is to help transition the current 10-digit suicide prevention lifeline to the new number, 988. To tell us more, NPR health correspondent Rhitu Chatterjee is here.

Hi, Rhitu.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: HHS says a lot of this money is going to be used to strengthen and expand the existing lifeline operations. What does that look like?

CHATTERJEE: So the way the existing Suicide Prevention Lifeline works is that when someone dials the number, the call is routed to a local call center that's closest to the caller. But many of these local call centers are short staffed. Several have closed in recent years because of funding shortage. Now, if I call and call centers near me are busy, then my call is routed to a backup center. And when call volumes really go up, people end up waiting for a long time, which can mean a, you know, life-or-death situation for someone in suicidal crisis. So the bulk of this money announced today will be spent on shoring up this existing network. And some of this money will also go towards just the telephone infrastructure to make that switch to 988, as well as to creating a subnetwork for Spanish speakers.

SHAPIRO: Is there also an expectation that the call volume will go up when the switch happens because three digits are easier to remember than 10?

CHATTERJEE: That's right. Experts I spoke to all said call volumes, which, by the way, went up dramatically during the pandemic, are expected to grow even more once 988 is active because as you said, the whole point of having a three-digit number is that it's easier to remember and dial.

SHAPIRO: We've been describing this as a suicide prevention phone number to dial, but it's actually for a range of mental health issues, right?

CHATTERJEE: Absolutely. So here's how Health Secretary Xavier Becerra described it today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

XAVIER BECERRA: Just as 911 is easy to remember and is our go-to in an emergency, 988 should become the lifeline when we need help for a mental crisis.

CHATTERJEE: In fact, many people, you know, still call 911 when they're in a mental health crisis, and the hope is that those individuals will switch to dialing 988 when the number goes live.

SHAPIRO: So I said this is more than a quarter billion dollars. Is that enough money to meet the need?

CHATTERJEE: So mental health advocates that I spoke to, Ari, say they see this really as a very important step towards fixing our mental health crisis response system. But it's not enough. Here's Laurel Stine. She's the senior vice president of public policy at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

LAUREL STINE: There is a lot more that needs to be done. This is just a single piece of the pie in a large pizza pie, if you say, of the work that needs to be done.

CHATTERJEE: And Stine and other advocates say that many people who call the lifeline need to be connected to care in their communities. And so the federal government, states and communities need to really invest in things like mobile crisis units and outpatient, inpatient and residential care options so that people can be connected to the right level of care in a timely manner.

SHAPIRO: That is NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee.

Thank you very much.

CHATTERJEE: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.