When Tonja Myles experienced a mental health crisis fueled by past trauma, a relative saw no other option but to call 911. The result: two law enforcement officers showed up at the family member’s house. 

While one was trained in dealing with mental health crises, the other “treated me like a criminal,” Myles recalled. “If it wasn’t for that trained law enforcement person, it could have gone badly very quickly.”

Avoiding potentially dangerous situations for people of color during mental health crises is one of the main goals of the new 988 mental health hotline, launching this month through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Designed to replace the 10-digit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the leaner hotline number will aim to serve as an easy-to-access support for people experiencing mental health crises — as well as provide a better option for people of color, who experience disparities in mental health care and access. The hotline will connect callers to trained mental health professionals, who can direct them to local resources and support.

Myles, a spokeswoman for the new 988 hotline and a certified peer support specialist, characterized 988 as a “game changer” for people of color.

“We don’t normally call a crisis line, and that’s due to trauma, distrust and our tradition,” she explained. “I have to tell a lot of family members, ‘Right now the only option you have is 911,’ and they cringe. Because they’re already in crisis — and then when they see law enforcement is going to come, they’re traumatized by that.”

“This is going to help with that. People can think, ‘Okay, I don’t have to call 911, I can call 988,’” Myles continued. “’They’re going to be connected with someone who is trained and compassionate, and who knows how to help a person when they’re in a moment of crisis.”

Officials expect the hotline will experience an influx in calls when it launches. The previous suicide prevention hotline received 3.6 million calls or chats in 2020; SAMHSA expects that number to rise to six million or more in the coming year, according to CNN.

The expected demand prompted worry among some experts that the hotline may be overwhelmed, but Myles dismissed such concerns. “There might be a few challenges, but we’ll work through them,” she noted.

In addition to communities of color, experts also believe the hotline will better serve LGBTQ youth, who are at higher suicide risk than non-LGBTQ people.

“To know a person can call 988 and get connected to those resources is just amazing,” Myles said. “I never thought it would happen in my lifetime. The fact that it’s here to stay is a win for everyone.”
The switch to 988 is part of the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act, which was signed into law in October 2020.

This story has been updated to more accurately describe Myles’ experience with calling 911.