Rutgers to serve as backup call center for new national 988 mental health crisis line

The Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care National Call Center will play an important role when the new national hotline for mental health — dial 988 — is launched July 16.

The center has been selected to serve as one of 12 national backup centers that will triage overflow calls, ensuring that those reaching out find a voice on the other end of their call.

The line has been created to serve as an alternative to calling 911 or law enforcement for mental health crises.

With the new hotline, people who are experiencing a mental health or substance-use crisis can dial or text the three-digit number 24/7 to immediately connect with trained counselors who will assess the call and provide support, risk assessment, safety planning and referrals to local mental health treatment services or resources.

The hotline, which was mandated by the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020 and funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, connects to the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-TALK) network of crisis centers.

According to SAMHSA, there is roughly one death by suicide in the nation every 11 minutes and about 12 million people report seriously considering suicide each year. More than 3 million people contact the lifeline annually — a number experts expect will rise when 988 goes live.

William Zimmerman, program manager for the New Jersey Hopeline and the new Lifeline national backup center, said Rutgers has the experience needed to handle the situation.

“Rutgers has operated the New Jersey Hopeline, the state’s suicide prevention hotline, for the past nine years and has experience in answering these calls,” he said. “The potential benefit of 988 is tremendous. During a crisis, quick access to support and care can prevent death by suicide. This number will also help better reach underserved populations such as in rural areas and communities of color, which can lack mental health services.”

The Lifeline is comprised of a network of more than 200 local- and state-funded crises centers throughout the U.S. Calls are routed to the closest center based on area code.

“However, not every area has a crisis center, and not all centers operate 24/7,” Zimmerman said. “If a local crisis center is unable to take the call, the caller will be automatically routed to Rutgers or another national backup crisis center.”