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The new 3-digit suicide hotline number is launching this weekend. Are states ready?

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Starting this Saturday, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline will change from a 10-digit number to just three digits - 988. Now, this new shorter 988 number will be easier for people to remember and dial in the middle of a crisis. Mental health advocates hope it will ultimately transform the country's mental health care system. NPR health correspondent Rhitu Chatterjee is here in the studio to tell us more. Hey, Rhitu.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK, so 988 - I mean, it feels pretty easy to remember, right? But how do you think it will actually change how people access mental health care?

CHATTERJEE: So right now, there just aren't many options for people experiencing a mental health crisis. A growing number of people are using the 10-digit Suicide Prevention Lifeline, but the vast majority really just call 911 and end up in an ER waiting for hours in these frenetic ERs, and sometimes even days, to get care. Or they end up interacting with law enforcement officers, which can end up in tragedy and trauma. Here's psychologist Ben Miller. He's the president of the nonprofit Well Being Trust.

BEN MILLER: And if you look at the data from the police, it's about 20% of their total staff time is spent responding and transporting individuals who are experiencing a mental health crisis.

CHATTERJEE: And just last year, he says, more than 2 million people with serious mental illness ended up in jail, which is, you know, obviously not where they should be.

CHANG: Absolutely. I mean, and then there's the reality that a lot of people struggling with mental illness get killed by law enforcement, right?

CHATTERJEE: Absolutely. About a quarter of police shootings involve a person with a mental illness - people like Miles Hall, a young man in California who had schizoaffective disorder. His mother, Taun Hall, says Miles was a really gentle guy.

TAUN HALL: He was just a great kid. You know, he'd walk in a room, and he had this infectious smile. And he was just a beautiful soul.

CHATTERJEE: But his delusions made him think he was Jesus, so he'd just go around knocking on people's doors, preaching to them. And because the family is African American, his mom had taken this extra precaution of telling the police beforehand about his diagnosis for Miles' safety. But one day in June 2019, when he was in the midst of a breakdown, the family called 911, hoping they would get him into a hospital. But instead, they got cops.

HALL: Right when they got on scene, within 30 seconds, they're shouting his name. You don't do that when someone's in a - having delusions and hallucinations. And then within 30 seconds, one of them shot a beanbag. And then within, like, another second, they were shooting their guns. Miles was shot four times.

CHATTERJEE: And Miles died that day. So the goal with 988, Ailsa, is that it will be a safer, more effective option than 911 because anyone experiencing any kind of mental health crisis can call the number, talk to a professional trained to handle such crises, and that person can also connect the person to crisis care that does not involve the police or ERs.

CHANG: OK. So I call 988. And what kind of care - like, what sort of care would that look like?

CHATTERJEE: So things like mobile crisis teams that would come to your house and crisis stabilization units. So I spoke with Angela Kimball, who's with the advocacy group Inseparable, and she has experienced what good crisis care looks like. Her son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. And back in 2017, he was living in Portland, Ore., when he had a major manic episode.

ANGELA KIMBALL: He'd ripped out all of the kitchen cabinets. He'd smashed the stove into just nothing. He was talking about how soap was poison and how he felt like he was being surveilled.

CHATTERJEE: So Angela reached out to the local crisis center - she knew there was one - and they sent a mobile crisis team to her son's house.

KIMBALL: They talked very respectfully and kindly to my son, and they just said, hey, Alex, we hear that you haven't been sleeping for a few days. Looks like things aren't going well for you. How are you doing? He says, yeah, I can't go to sleep. You know, my head is hurting, and I just want to fall asleep.

CHATTERJEE: And they were so effective, Ailsa, that he willingly went with the team to a crisis stabilization unit where he received treatment right away.

CHANG: Wow. That's really good news. Well, OK, so starting on Saturday, when 988 goes live, will people anywhere in the country be able to access this kind of care?

CHATTERJEE: Depends on where you live. So just in the past year, the federal government has invested historic amounts of money to beef up the 988 infrastructure. But only four states have passed legislation to fund 988 and associated services, and just about half have a plan for when the line goes live. That said, mental health advocates say this new number is still - the launch is a historic event. It's just going to take a while to have the system up and fully functional. And remember, until 988 launch on Saturday, anyone in crisis can call 1-800-273-8255.

CHANG: That is NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee. Thank you, Rhitu.

CHATTERJEE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.