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Tampa-area crisis counselors brace for a new 988 National Suicide Prevention hotline

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Starting Saturday, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline will change from a 10-digit number to just three digits – 988.

Proponents say the number will be easier to remember or dial in a crisis. They also hope it improves access to services, decreases unnecessary interactions with the police and saves lives.

Starting Saturday, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline will change from a 10-digit number to just three digits – 988.

Proponents say the number — which can be used in place of the current 800-273-TALK — will be easier to remember or dial in a crisis. They also hope it improves access to services, decreases unnecessary interactions with the police and saves lives.

Callers will be connected to a trained counselor and receive counseling, resources or referrals. Mobile units may be dispatched in some cases, where available.

The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay will be taking the calls in Hillsborough and Charlotte counties.

Spokesman Ken Gibson said staff receive about six weeks of training so they can effectively help people in distress. He says the Crisis Center was already taking calls when people dialed the old lifeline number, which will still work.

Gibson said the goal is to improve access to services and save more lives.

"If somebody is having thoughts of suicide, they're in an emotional crisis, and they're in that heightened emotional state, 988 is easier to remember than 800-273-TALK and then translating those letters into numbers," Gibson said. "It's a simpler process, which is what you want in that type of situation."

Gibson anticipates the simplicity of the new one could result in a lot more people calling. National estimates expect call volume to jump from 4 million to 12 million calls in the first year, and there has been concern in some states about the readiness to handle the increased call volume.

Gibson said he does expect to see much higher call volumes to 9-8-8 — especially initially — and that the center is actively recruiting more staff.

Gibson said the 988 line also has backup systems in place in case a call center gets overwhelmed.

"The infrastructure, the network, has already been there," Gibson said. "The really new thing is that it's a new entry point for people to connect to this system of support."

The 988 hotline comes amid a mental health crisis in the U.S. and Florida.

Federal data in 2021 show 31.6% of adults in Florida reported symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorder, which is on par with national numbers. Suicide deaths are increasing, as well, especially among people of color, youths and people in rural areas.

The new number can be accessed on landline and cellphone.

The previous 800-273-TALK number will continue to work after the 988 launch.

Information from NPR and Kaiser Health News was used in this report.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.
I’m the online producer for Health News Florida, a collaboration of public radio stations and NPR that delivers news about health care issues.