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Awareness of 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline Lags

Analysis  |  By Christopher Cheney  
   June 19, 2023

Recently published research shows that about 13% of people are aware of the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

More efforts are needed to raise awareness about the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, says Andrew Sassani, MD, corporate vice president and chief medical officer of California behavioral health services for Magellan Health.

The 988 Suicide & Crisis Line was launched last July. Formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the 988 Suicide & Crisis Line offers free and confidential support to people facing a suicide crisis or emotional distress.

Awareness of the 988 Suicide & Crisis Line lags far behind awareness of 911, Sassani says. "Certainly, there is more awareness now than there was a year ago, when the line was being born. But even though awareness is more than it used to be, the line is not commonly known to the extent that it should be. As research recently showed, about 13% of people are aware of the 988 line, whereas everybody is aware of 911. People know 911 probably from the time they are 5 or 6 years old. We are certainly far from that level of awareness about 988."

Despite the lack of awareness, the 988 line is making a difference for people in behavioral health crises, he says. "If we look at the data of how many calls and texts have been made to 988, we are on track to reach about 5 million contacts by the line's one-year anniversary. That is a promising sign, but the fact that the awareness is less than 15% points to additional efforts needing to be made for awareness."

Raising awareness about 988

New approaches need to be developed to raise awareness about the 988 line, Sassani says.

"NBC used to have 'The More You Know' public service announcements. We need a nationwide campaign of these kinds of public service announcements to make people aware of the availability of 988. We cannot rely on individual healthcare providers or other people 'in the know.' Mental health providers know about 988 and perhaps they will tell their patients about 988. The fact that only 13% of the population is aware of 988 is partly due to the absence of a wide campaign with the specific goal of raising awareness across the nation about 988."

A national approach to raising awareness about the 988 line is crucial, he says. "There have been local efforts to raise awareness by media and healthcare providers, but there has not been a general, nationwide campaign to raise awareness. Television and social media campaigns would be helpful."

988 fills a critical need

Being able to call 988 is an easy way to access help when people are facing a behavioral health crisis. Sassani says.

"Many of the calls to 911 are for when a fire breaks out, a car accident happens, or some other physical emergency occurs, and a dispatcher sends an ambulance, fire trucks, or police officers to the scene. The 911 dispatchers are not mental health or substance abuse savvy. The 988 line was created to specifically be able to handle the calls or texts that are made related to mental health and substance abuse crises. The skillset of deciphering and dispatching resources for a fire is quite different than the skillset for dealing with someone experiencing a behavioral health crisis. So, the 988 line was specifically created to be able to address behavioral health calls more professionally by trained dispatchers," he says.

In addition to having 988 operators trained to address behavioral health crises, the operators play a key role in connecting people to local services, Sassani says. "When a call or text is made to 988, depending on how the communication transpires, one of the best parts of 988 is that a transfer can be made to a local resource, so a local professional in mental health or substance use can take the call or text, then engage with the person and provide needed services."

The 988 operators are prepared to deal with behavioral health crises, he says. "When someone calls 911, a dispatcher picks up and says, 'What is your emergency?' When someone calls 988, the operator knows that the incoming call is going to be related to a mental health or substance use crisis. That's why you call 988—you don't call 988 to say that a fire has broken out. The 988 operators are trained and skilled to process and engage a person in a mental health or substance use crisis in a professional way to help that person get out of the crisis mode. The goal is to stabilize the person then hand them off to a behavioral health provider who can provide services."

Christopher Cheney is the CMO editor at HealthLeaders.


Unlike 911 dispatchers, 988 operators a specifically trained to help people experiencing a behavioral health crisis such as suicidality.

One of the best aspects of the 988 line is that operators can connect people in crisis to local resources.

A behavioral health expert says there needs to be more national efforts to promote the 988 line.

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