July 19, 2022

“There are people alive today who would not be without mobile crisis support.”

Those are the words of John Muehsam, a man I met on a memorable trip to Philadelphia this past Friday. John works for Elwyn, a nonprofit human service organization that partners with Philadelphia’s mental health consortium to provide mobile crisis services. Over the first six months of 2022, this one nonprofit has already dispatched over 2,100 support teams to intervene and prevent suicides and other crises. Thirty-seven percent of those dispatches were for children. I was struck by how many lives have been saved by this one group of selfless, anonymous heroes who work around the clock to make sure that help is available for those in need.

What was also striking to me was that John Muehsam said they could be doing even more. He lamented that they provide this life-saving support, but not everyone knows about them. In his words, “Access is such a big issue. If people don’t know the number, then they aren’t going to be able to access the service.”

Starting this week, everyone, everywhere is going to know this type of mental health support is available; everyone, everywhere is going to know the number to reach this support; and it’s going to save a lot more lives in Philadelphia and across the country. That’s because the new 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is now live and fully operational.

As of July 16th, if you dial 9-8-8, you will be connected to professional, compassionate support for mental health emergencies. If you press “1” you will be patched through to a crisis line for veterans.

The new 988 Lifeline is confidential, and it’s available 24/7.

988 is a number that people can remember.

988 is a number that people can call.

And, notably, 988 is a number that people can text. We expect text-to-988 will make a big difference for persons with disabilities and especially young people. For many young people, picking up and calling on the phone is not their native language. Texting is.

This is all a really big deal. So, appropriately, the event I attended last Friday in Philadelphia to celebrate 988’s debut drew a big turnout. The centerpiece of the visit was a roundtable discussion at The Consortium, a mobile crisis team dispatch center. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra served as the headliner and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough joined me as part of the Washington delegation. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenny led a group of state and local officials. Every government official there would tell you that the real stars of the discussion were the crisis care providers who welcomed us into their facility and are the ones doing the hard work to save lives.

The discussion amplified the fact that 988 is going to raise awareness that emergency mental health services are available and radically increase the number of people who are able to reach out for that help in times of crisis. But the event also surfaced some less obvious benefits.

One recurring theme was how the 988 Lifeline will make 911 more effective. For years, people have called 911 when they should have reached out to mental health authorities. As Mayor Kenny put it, “911 was for everything. We have to get away from that.” The Consortium’s CEO John White noted that 988 will bring callers with mental health emergencies directly to behavioral health providers. He believed this could change and improve the whole dynamic between law enforcement and behavioral health communities.

Another theme that I emphasized myself was the potential for the 988 Lifeline to decrease the stigma associated with mental health challenges. One in four adults in America struggles with a mental health disorder. That’s over twice as common as being left-handed. But Reverend Luis Cortez Esperanza, a local faith leader who took part in the roundtable, noted that mental health is still considered a taboo subject, and “We need to find a way to make treatment for mental health normative.” I believe 988 has that power. Soon, children will learn at a young age about 988 the way they’ve learned about 911. Establishing a universally known number for suicide prevention will increase awareness of these issues and reinforce the fact that mental health is fundamental to your general health. Citing the power of 988 to reduce the stigma around mental health, Philadelphia’s Behavioral Health Commissioner Dr. Jill Bowen said, “This is a historic moment.”

There’s been a lot of work to get to this day. And I want to thank everyone who has made this progress possible. But our work is not done. We need to start collecting information on how the new system works and learn how we can improve this technology so we can meet people where they are and get them the help they need most.

I’ve quoted a lot of the people I met in Philadelphia last Friday, and I’d like to close with one more: Raffaela Gualtieri. Rafaella said, “Recovery is possible. Even though it might not feel that way at the time, once you reach out for that help and call a number like 988, that is the first step.” Raffaela would know. She’s once called the old Suicide Prevention Lifeline herself. As profound as her insights were, I’m even more inspired by Raffaela’s actions. After reaching out for help, she became a crisis counselor so she could be there for others. Now that’s what being strong looks like. Having made it easy to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, now is the time to make it clear to the entire country that it is not a sign of weakness to reach out for help like Raffaela, but a sign of strength.

For more information on the FCC’s work on 988, visit fcc.gov/988Lifeline.