New 988 mental health hotline could nearly double crisis calls in Wisconsin

The three-digit nationwide mental health crisis hotline goes live on Saturday

A man uses a smartphone.
In this Sunday, Aug. 11, 2019, photo, a man uses a smartphone in New Orleans. Jenny Kane/AP Photo

A new national hotline modeled on the 911 system will give people having a mental health crisis an easy-to-remember way to get immediate help.

The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline will allow people anywhere in the nation who are experiencing suicidal thoughts or other mental health crises to get help just by calling or texting 988. The free, confidential service, which is available to people of any age, is designed to mirror the way 911 handles other sorts of emergencies. It will provide immediate help to those experiencing crisis, and potentially connect them to other services.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin was one of four senators — two Democrats and two Republicans — who introduced the legislation. Former President Donald Trump signed it into law in 2020. The national line will replace the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and provide an easily accessible connection to local services. Callers will be immediately connected to local operators and linked to local resources as needed.

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The phone service will include access to speakers of multiple languages. The text service and an online chat feature available at 988lifeline.org will be English-only upon the service’s launch.

At a Friday afternoon press conference in Madison, Baldwin said it took years of working with telecommunications providers and mental health professionals to make 988 a reality.

“The lifeline provides 24/7 services,” Baldwin said. “It’s free and confidential to provide support for people in distress. It provides prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones. … Most importantly, 988 is going to help us save lives.”

The service officially launches on Saturday, but Wisconsin Department of Health Services Secretary-designee Karen Timberlake said the number is already live. She said it’s responding to a growing need for mental health help.

“Calls to the suicide crisis line … have been on the rise in Wisconsin, as they have been around the country,” Timberlake said. “We know that suicide rates among Wisconsin residents have increased over the last decade. So it’s really critically important that people understand that 988 is a resource that is there to help them in a confidential, 24/7 way.”

Advocates also expect the new service will lead to a considerable increase in the number of calls, in part because the service is designed to be broadly accessible and in part because of publicity around the nationwide launch. In a Friday morning call with media, DHS crisis services coordinator Caroline Crehan Neumann said one projection showed an expected 93 percent increase in calls in the 988 service’s first year.

In 2021, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline answered about 29,000 Wisconsin calls, according to Gov. Tony Evers’ office. These include calls from people struggling with addictions, depression and other mental health challenges.

“Capacity-building has been a main priority for Wisconsin, as well as every other call center in the nation,” Crehan Neumann said.

The state received a $1.7 million federal grant, 85 percent of which will go to Family Services of Northeast Wisconsin, which will staff the state’s 988 Lifeline service. Those funds will allow Family Services to hire call counselors and expand their call center to deal with the expected increase in calls.

Advocates say they hope 988 becomes synonymous with mental health services in the same way 911 is for fire and police services.

“In the long term, (as) people learn about 988, I really think this service is going to integrate itself into society,” Crehan Neumann said. “People are talking about mental health and substance use and crisis and suicidal thoughts so much more than they ever were.”