Beginning Saturday, veterans and military personnel facing a mental health crisis can call 988 and press 1, after years of being told to dial an unmemorable 10-digit number.
The Veterans Crisis Line will join the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline through the new 988 suicide and crisis hotline, linking veterans and service members who need help with the same Department of Veterans Affairs support system as before.
The goal of the new number, VA officials said Friday, is to make it easier for veterans, service members and their families to access mental health support. The VA anticipates that the new three-digit format will lead to increased calls and has hired additional personnel to meet demand, said Dr. Matthew Miller, executive director for suicide prevention at the VA.
"Now that 988 implementation is upon us, we are excited and we are ready," Miller said during a media roundtable.
Mental health advocates hope 988 will replace emergency calls to 911 for mental health crises.
While 911 dispatchers are prepared to send first responders and support callers during an emergency, Veterans Crisis Line staffers are trained counselors who can handle distraught callers, access records and send help in emergencies, according to the VA.
"It's one thing to answer the call quickly ... and to provide quality services within the call, both of which are absolutely essential and, by the way, legally mandated. But what happens after the call is something that uniquely distinguishes us. ... If a veteran is willing, we will put in a referral to [a] local suicide prevention coordinator at the local facility, offer direct contact and outreach with a veteran, and then connect them to the right care at the right time and the right place," Miller said.
The 988 initiative was signed into law in 2020 and developed by the Department of Health and Human Services, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and the VA.
The original number for the Veterans Crisis Line, 1-800-273-8255, followed by pressing 1, will remain active for an undetermined amount of time while rerouting calls through the new 988 system.
While the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline will have a text component with the same number, 988, Miller said that to reach the Veterans Crisis Line, veterans and military personnel should continue texting 838255 to directly connect with counselors trained to help them.
Since its inception in 2007, the Veterans Crisis Line has fielded 2.6 million calls, made 1.1 million referrals to VA health services, and sent responders to 233,000 life-threatening emergencies. The line averages 2,000 calls a day, and the VA expects that to increase by between 5% and 13% immediately following the launch of the new 988 number, with demand growing from 40% to 60% in the coming years.
Miller said the increase is expected because 988 is an easier number to remember, especially during an emergency, and the initiative represents a consolidation of a number of mental health resources and phone numbers "under one umbrella," which is likely to make the Veterans Crisis Line more accessible to all veterans.
While the rollout Saturday marks the launch of the 988 system, some areas of the country are still building out their capacity to support calls. The changeover requires state and federal funding and, while states have been given the option to pass legislation to add a fee to cell phone bills to cover the costs, just four have done so.
But the state discrepancies should not affect access or operations to the Veterans Crisis Line, Miller said.
"It's difficult to measure the possible impact, but I can tell you, historically, the Veterans Crisis Line is contacted by individuals who aren't veterans, who aren't calling on behalf of veterans but who are saying, 'We know you're there, we know you will answer,'" Miller said. "We believe that although it may not be our primary mission, any service to an individual in crisis and any life saved is an important contribution ... and we're happy to do that for our country and fellow Americans."
– Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.