988 crisis helpline arrives Saturday. Florida mental health advocates hope they’re ready

Advocates brace for a surge in calls to new number

People with a behavioral health crisis can call 988 starting Saturday. (Shutterstock)

ORLANDO, Fla. – A new number arrives this week that is meant to be a 911 for behavioral health crises.

The nationwide 988 hotline goes active July 16. The hotline is free and open 24/7.

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When people call the number for help with suicide prevention or a mental health or substance abuse crisis, they’ll reach trained call-takers who can refer callers to behavioral health providers, or send a mobile response to help de-escalate the crisis and provide further services.

The lifeline will also utilize a system to provide translation services for people who don’t speak English or Spanish.

People who need help can also text 988, or chat via the Lifeline website. Texting or chat services are currently only available in English.

“This is the first time anything like this has been attempted and it’s long overdue,” said Marni Stahlman, president of the Mental Health Association of Central Florida.

While the country has had a national suicide prevention hotline for years, this is a simpler number that’s easier to remember and meant as more of a behavioral health care hotline, Stahlman said.

The hope is also to provide some relief to 911 and law enforcement agencies when dealing with behavioral health crises. The Florida Mental Health Advocacy Coalition says about 20% of current 911 calls are behavioral health and suicide calls, so 988 would take those calls on.

The hotline, however, is supposed to connect callers to local lifeline call centers based on their zip code. While some states have provided dedicated funding for their call centers, Florida did not.

“Florida has 12 lifeline centers and they’re all understaffed and underfunded, and the expectation is they are all going to see increased volume when (988) goes into effect,” Stahlman said.

This week a group of 36 organizations, including the Florida Policy Institute, the United Way of Florida, and the Winter Park Health Foundation, called on Gov. DeSantis and the Florida Legislature to drawn down federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act to help fund mobile response teams that can be activated for crisis intervention services.

Backup national centers will also be available to take phone calls and refer callers, so no call will go unanswered. Stahlman says state mental health groups have been spending the last year getting ready, and she’s also hoping the lack of an effective media campaign will also prevent a surge of calls to the new number and give them time to work out the kinks.

“Our agencies are ready to take the calls. The thing is it’s so new, we don’t know how it will work out. There will be bumps, but we’ll get to it,” Stahlman said.

The most important thing, Stahlman said, is to call 988 if you need to.

“Don’t hesitate, make the call, for you or a family member,” Stahlman said.

If you have more questions about 988, you can go to the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline website.

If you need help now, you can also call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

We also have a list of Central Florida mental health services here on ClickOrlando.com.

About the Author:

Christie joined the ClickOrlando team in November 2021.