Georgia has a life-saving mental health hotline. Few know about it.

What you should know about the 988 hotline
Views of 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline stickers shown at Georgia State University in Atlanta on Friday, May 19, 2023  (Natrice Miller/

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@

Views of 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline stickers shown at Georgia State University in Atlanta on Friday, May 19, 2023 (Natrice Miller/

One year ago, Georgia and the rest of the nation launched a hotline that held a bold promise: it would serve as the key lifeline for Americans who were in the throes of a mental health crisis.

The hotline, which is simply 988, has made considerable gains in the last year, with more people calling the number in Georgia every day. But there’s still one major hurdle: very few people are aware the three-digit hotline even exists.

The Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, or DBHDD, recently commissioned a survey to assess the statewide awareness of the number, and the results were fairly bleak: just 31% of respondents said they knew about the 988 dialing code. Of those who knew, only about half could correctly identify what purpose 988 actually serves.

This implies that “actual awareness of the service’s function is limited to just 16% of respondents,” according to the survey, which was conducted in May, and involved 488 people across the state of Georgia.

The results aren’t exactly shocking. Other surveys of 988 found that few people are aware of the hotline, which aims to eventually be as well known as 911. But the lack of awareness is also by design: the federal government has largely held off promoting 988 since it first launched, for fear that states wouldn’t be able to fill enough positions to handle a deluge of callers who were in distress. This is, at least in part, because the nation has been in the midst of a shortage of behavioral health workers.

“I am not surprised about lack of awareness regarding [988],” said Dr. Eve Byrd, director of the Carter Center’s mental health program. “Although there’s a greater awareness about the need for the mental health services since the pandemic, the general public sees [mental health treatment] as basically inaccessible services.”

The limited public awareness could soon change as the federal government and states like Georgia prepare to mount advertising campaigns promoting the hotline. DBHDD said this survey will inform where the state targets its outreach and marketing of 988 in the next year.

“What is clear in the data we have collected so far is that while awareness for 988 remains low among Georgians, the demand for behavioral health services and crisis support is on the rise,” said Ashley Fielding, a spokesperson with DBHDD. “Georgia has experienced consistent growth in demand since the pandemic began.”

So far, Georgia has gotten high marks for how it handled the rollout of 988, with workers taking an ever-mounting call load, and answering calls quickly. Although The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in May about concerns that momentum could be hampered by funding cuts in the latest state spending plan.

Kevin Tanner, Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities speaks during a town hall discussing the milestones of 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at Georgia State University in Atlanta on Friday, May 19, 2023  (Natrice Miller/

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

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Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

How 988 works

The three-digit hotline is an ambitious project that launched back in July of 2022, with a goal of helping callers who are experiencing a mental health or substance abuse crisis. It has the dual aim of relieving law enforcement of these calls, who are now the front-line responders to calls made through 911.

But Georgia officials said they had a step ahead of other states, as the state already had a crisis call line: the Georgia Crisis and Access Line. Calls made to 988 are routed into the existing system, and the state added staff to keep up with the anticipated demand.

Here’s how the line works: A caller with a Georgia area code is sent to a trained crisis responder, who then makes decisions on how to handle the call based on the severity of the caller’s situation, which could range from a more minor mental health crisis to a person at risk of attempting suicide.

The crisis responder might then be able to de-escalate a situation over the phone, or direct the person to services. In other cases, they will send out a team to help the caller or plan to have them admitted to one of the state’s crisis units.

“We think it’s a great alternative, especially for people who otherwise would have to call 911. We know that not all law enforcement officers are trained to handle a mental health crisis, and often unfortunately how [police] are trained to handle a crisis doesn’t work for a mental health crisis,” said Kim H. Jones, executive director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI Georgia.

Ramping up advertising

It’s tricky to say exactly how much money will be spent on advertising 988 in the coming months, but it will certainly be millions of dollars. DBHDD has hired a 988 outreach manager, and within the next few months will launch several awareness campaigns, funded through $1 million in federal dollars.

Federal agencies including Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Department of Transportation have been promoting 988 since the transition. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA, have been promoting the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline in a more limited capacity, and they plan to roll out a national awareness campaign in the fall.

“Over the next several months, our focus will be making sure every Georgian knows that if they or someone they know is experiencing emotional distress, is contemplating suicide or in need of substance use treatment, Georgia is ready to meet them where they are—ready with someone to call, someone to respond and a safe place for Georgians to go for crisis care,” said Fielding, the DBHDD spokesperson.

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What to know about the 988 mental health hotline

  • 988 is a national three-digit hotline that connects people with a crisis responder who can suggest suicide prevention and mental health crisis resources.
  • 988 callers can engage with counselors by voice call, text or chat on their website. All are answered by the Georgia Crisis and Access Line (GCAL), 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
  • Nationally, there is now an addition of Spanish text and chat services for 988. They’ve also added services geared towards LGBTQ youth and young adults.
  • A call to the hotline does not mean police or an ambulance will be sent to your home.