HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) — Starting on Saturday, July 16, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline will transition from a 10-digit phone number to a three-digit number.
The new number is 988. Similarly, to 911, the idea behind the shortened number is to make it easy to remember in a crisis.
“We really believe this 988 number will save lives,” said Kimberly Boswell, the Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Mental Health. “We really believe that giving people an easy way to access behavioral health services is one of the most important things we can do for the citizens of Alabama.”
The number works nationwide, so anyone experiencing a mental health crisis can call it. The calls are routed to local call centers, so people can get the help they need in their cities.
“988 is the thread that ties together the Alabama crisis system of care,” Commissioner Boswell said.
According to the Alabama Department of Mental Health, Governor Kay Ivey and the Alabama State Legislature have funded six Crisis Centers across the state. The centers offer services at staged levels.
One of the crisis centers is located right here in North Alabama. WellStone is located in Huntsville, off of Memorial Parkway. It serves Madison and surrounding counties.
News 19 spoke with WellStone CEO Jeremy Blair ahead of the 988 launch.
“It’s really just an extension of what’s been in place for many, many years – but in Alabama, what is happening is we’re expanding the number of lifeline centers essentially, so that we’re able to increase the answering of the call rate for our state,” Blair stated.
The previous 10-digit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline also connected people with local services. However, he said he’s excited about the easier-to-remember 988 number.
“One of our goals at WellStone is to kind of increase access to care, and any resource we can use to help develop that we’re excited about,” Blair continued.
WellStone will soon transition to a new facility, right next door to its current one; however, construction on the new facility is not yet finished.
News 19 asked Blair if WellStone is prepared for a potential increase in call volume, as the new number rolls out.
“We do anticipate somewhat of an increase,” Blair told News 19. “It’s kind of hard to gauge what that call volume is going to be, until we really get into it, we’ll just have to adjust as we go along.”
The facility does appear to be beefing up staffing levels. According to a post Blair shared on Twitter, WellStone is holding a Job Fair at its facility on July 22.
When it comes to the launch of 988, both Blair and Commissioner Boswell urged patience from people as the rollout happens.
“I think the important thing to remember, you know when we launched 911 many, many years ago, it wasn’t perfect on day one and that, the 911 system is a system that has evolved,” Blair said. “Things will not be perfect on the first day of launch of 988, but it will be a system that evolves over time.”
Commissioner Boswell said, “We absolutely at this point are ready.”
“We’re going to be monitoring the call volume because, kind of like when 911 came out, it took people a little while to get used to dialing the number, and then once they realized that they would be able to actually get to the services they needed, then the call volume started going up,” Boswell continued.
Commissioner Boswell said the pandemic exacerbated mental health issues for many people across the state.
“One of the worst things you can do for your mental health is isolation,” she said. Boswell said that has caused more people to seek help for their mental health issues.
Similar to Blair, Boswell said the Alabama Department of Mental Health will monitor the call volume, in an effort “to make sure we have the resources available for folks who are are calling.”
If you do call 988, Blair said you will be asked a series of questions over the phone to determine the initial steps that need to be taken. He said people shouldn’t be afraid to call when they need help.
Boswell said the number is available to anyone who needs support. She listed questions, suicidal thoughts, and other mental health crises as reasons people should call 988.
The Commissioner also said family members can call if they are concerned about a loved one and need resources.
If you or someone you love needs help, call the Suicide & Crisis Prevention Lifeline at 988. The former lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) will remain active as well.