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The 988 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, established by Congress in 2020, launched on Saturday, July 16. The lifeline number is a three-digit code that people can call to connect with mental health crisis counselors 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Both English and Spanish language callers can use the number and texting is also available in English only.  

As a Disability Scoop article noted, 988 replaces the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and expands its assistance. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is the lead federal agency for the lifeline. In addition to those with suicidal ideation — suicidal thoughts or ideas — the 988 number is also set up to help those who are facing any kind of mental health crisis or emotional distress as well as family members and friends concerned about someone dealing with a mental health issue.  

Those who call the number will be connected to a trained counselor at one of more than 200 local centers across the country. If a local center is not available to provide support and resources, the call is routed to a national backup crisis center. 

Ideally, the new number has the potential to “revolutionize mental health care,” wrote Benjamin F. Miller, president of Well Being Trust and chair of the advisory board of Inseparable, two mental health organizations, in an article on The Hill website. “An effective, fully-funded system would knock down barriers, ensuring equitable care is available to everyone, regardless of background or socioeconomic status.”  

First, it offers expanded capability to resolve callers’ issues quickly and efficiently. According to National Suicide Prevention Hotline data, less than 2 percent of calls require the dispatch of emergency services. It can also limit the need for law enforcement to be involved, allowing them to use their time elsewhere and limiting the potential for misunderstanding.  

For autistic people and their families, the 988 line is reason for optimism. As The OARacle’s contributing writers noted in our series about mental health published last summer, mental health is a top priority for those in the autistic community. As many as 70 percent of autistic people experience co-occurring mental health issues, with new research showing that almost 80% of autistic children have at least one mental health condition. 

Initially, state and local centers will need to come up to speed for the number to work as comprehensively as it has the potential to. While the 2021 National Suicide Hotline Designation Act passed by Congress established the national 988 number, it did not provide state and local funding. In some states and local communities, there may not be funding for local call centers. As people begin to use the 988 number, the volume may overwhelm the ability of the crisis line to quickly assist callers, as an Autism Society website article noted.  

Some in the autism community are also concerned that the 988 number is not equipped to serve autistic people. In an article on the WUFT website, Jack Scott, the director of the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD) at Florida Atlantic University, said that many autistic people don’t call hotlines because they don’t feel as if their concerns are taken seriously or understood. Because autistic people may process their emotions and express them differently and may need more time to process conversation, a crisis hotline like the 988 number doesn’t always work well for them. Crisis counselors without specific training in working with autistic people may not understand, leading them to not take the call seriously or even think the call is a prank, Scott said.  

Training, he noted, could make the difference. Scott said in a survey done by CARD and the Autism Society, almost 90% of autistic respondents said they’d be much more likely to call the hotlines if they knew the workers had additional training in autism. A National Suicide Prevention Lifeline spokesperson said in the WUFT article that they do provide education resources to help crisis counselors better assist neurodivergent callers, but since it is up to each local center to do the training, there are variances. 

The Autism Society said in its article that it hopes to work with “crisis centers across the country to advocate for the necessary training and resources” to help the autistic community. The Arc is also advocating for a national training curriculum for 988 call center staff so they can respond appropriately to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, noted a Disability Scoop article, and calling for more investment in community-based infrastructure and training. 

As Peter Berns, CEO at The Arc, said in the article, the launch of the new line is worthy of applause for its potential, if there is “more investment in the system…to ensure people with IDD who have mental health challenges, in every state, have access to the hotline and to make sure 988 effectively serves communities.”  

Sherri Alms is the freelance editor of The OARacle, a role she took on in 2007. She has been a freelance writer and editor for more than 20 years.