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988: A new phone number for people to call during a mental health crisis
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The Biden Administration rolled out the nation’s new mental health hotline 988, which will be fully operational around the country, including Colorado, on July 16th. For 54 years, 911 has been the number for Americans to call for all emergencies. The idea now is to get people to call or text 988 instead of the police when they are experiencing emotional distress. 

Jessica Rosenworcel, Chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission explained why it’s important. 

“Well, it’s really easy to remember and everyone everywhere in this country can access it. It’s a number they won’t forget they’ll be able to call it using those three digits, they’ll be able to text using those three digits. We know for young people picking up and calling on the phone may not be their native language, but texting is,” said Rosenworcel. 

Kelly Bowman, the director of Colorado’s 988 said it’s a self-defined crisis hotline adding that self-defined crisis can be anything and everything from waking up and feeling mildly depressed or anxious to having suicidal thoughts. 

“Sometimes it’s hard to take that step and say you know what? It was a rough day and I just need to connect with someone, and that power of human connection can make all the difference in the world and 988 is really about increasing that access and making it easy to remember,” Bowman added.

Children's Hospital Colorado saw an alarming increase of emergency room visits for a mental health crisis over the past two years. Photo courtesy of Children's Hospital Colorado. 

This change comes at a time when Colorado along with much of the country is facing a mental health crisis. Just among our youth, Children’s Hospital Colorado pediatric system reported last fall that emergency visits for a mental health crisis were up 73% over the same time period two years prior

Studies have also shown that Colorado has the highest rate of adult mental illness in the nation and one of the lowest rates of access to care. A collaborative investigation among Colorado news organizations showed some of the state’s 17 community-based mental health providers have failed to provide treatment to the toughest and most expensive behavioral health cases while avoiding competition. To address this mental health crisis, this year Colorado lawmakers passed a bill to reform the delivery network for mental health care in the state.

Still legislative changes can take time to implement and this enactment of 988 has been years in the making. After the time and energy spent on activism, the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act, establishing 988 was signed into law in October 2020. 

Despite this incredible step forward, the system has room for improvement. For example, when someone calls 988 they’ll be connected to a counselor in the state where their phone’s area code is from; meaning that if you live in Denver but have a 310-area code attached to your phone, your call to 988 would go to California.  Bowman hopes the Federal Communications Commission will step in and fix that. 

“While we work on whether or not we’ll get support from the FCC for geolocation to route calls to an in-state call center, we’re going to work to build trust in our communities and be clear about the message behind 988, which is that no one is left behind and no one feels like they can’t call,” she said.


Dana Knowles is a multimedia journalist at Rocky Mountain PBS and can be reached at danaknowles@rmpbs.org.

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