The Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care National Call Center has been selected to serve as one of 12 national backup centers that will triage overflow calls made to a national hotline for mental health crises and suicide prevention.

William Zimmerman, program manager for the National Call Center at Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care, said 988 is a three-digit dialing code that launches on July 16. It will be able to be dialed from any phone in the U.S. and territories, accessing the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

The lifeline has been in operation since 2005. It has provided support, resources, and referrals for those in mental health or suicidal crises, or equally important, to provide support or direction for those concerned about someone else who might be in crisis, he said.

There are many benefits to the new 988 number. Zimmerman said, first, it’s a simple, easy-to-remember three-digit number that will save time during a crisis. Second, moving the first response to the mental health crisis away from law enforcement into the hands of trained crisis counselors might improve outcomes by decreasing unnecessary trips to emergency departments, and it’s going to increase help-seeking behavior.

He said the 988 centers also have the capacity to provide focused follow-up contacts to callers and this has been demonstrated to improve outcomes as well.

911 has been in operation for over 50 years, developed to assist with medical and criminal emergencies.

“But 988 is going to put people who are in mental health crisis into the hands of trained counselors who can provide support for that specific type of crisis,” Zimmerman said.

When someone calls 988, he or she will be connected to a crisis counselor who is going to listen to them, who is going work collaboratively with them, and provide support.

“Sometimes having someone to really listen is enough to relieve the distress. Other times, callers might be provided with referrals or linked to treatment or concrete service resources,” he said.

Mobile crisis teams are also being developed as part of the transition to 988 for callers who might need more support.

Zimmerman said Rutgers has nearly a decade-long history of being a local lifeline network center.

Rutgers also has an existing infrastructure of this national call center from which it can build a new work unit.

Zimmerman said there is an access center at Rutgers that has grown over 25 years to a state-of-the-art call center that provides peer and crisis support to persons throughout the U.S. If you include military and veterans programs, it goes beyond that.

In 2019, Zimmerman said there were 47,511 American lives lost to suicide. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-24-year-olds. There is a suicide attempt made every 26.6 seconds in this country, he said, calling these statistics staggering.

The Substance Abuse and Mental health Services Administration also reports there is roughly one death by suicide in the nation every 11 minutes and about 12 million people report seriously considering suicide each year. Also, more than 3 million people contact the Lifeline annually, a number experts expect will rise once 9-8-8 is launched on July 16.

“To compare, a little over 36,000 Americans died in automobile accidents in 2019 and the auto industry is constantly investing in making cars safer. 988 is an investment, strengthening the safety net for people in mental health crises throughout the country and our hope is that 988 is going to give more people in crisis quick access to the support and assistance that they’re seeking,” Zimmerman said.

Jen Ursillo is a reporter and anchor for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach her at

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