FCC Unanimously Approves New Three-Digit Number as U.S. Suicide Prevention Hotline

988 Will Be the New National Suicide Prevention Hotline Number

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has made a monumental move towards suicide prevention efforts by unanimously approving the proposal for a new national suicide prevention hotline. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the importance of rapid access to crisis intervention and suicide prevention services has never been more critical than it is now. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that there has been a 33% increase in suicide rates from 1999 to 2017, with an almost 4% increase from 2016 to 2017 alone. The proposal, which comes from the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act of 2018, was approved by the 5 members of the commission on December 12th, and is currently open for public comments.

National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act

The original report for the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act presented to Congress in 2018 found that using a shorter and easier to remember number would make it easier for people in crisis to access potentially life-saving resources. The act directed the FCC, in coordination with the Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services for Mental Health and Substance Use and the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, to analyze the effectiveness of the current hotline, including how well it addresses the needs of Veterans. Unfortunately, suicide rates are higher among at-risk populations such as Veterans and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) communities. According to the CDC, more than 20 Veterans die by suicide each day and LGBTQ youth are three times more likely to contemplate suicide.

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1-800-273-8255 (TALK) was launched as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (Lifeline) in 2005 by SAMHSA and Vibrant Emotional Health, a mental health nonprofit. Calls to the current number are routed to the closest certified local crisis centers and, if a center is ever busy or experiencing issues, the system automatically routes callers to a backup center. Counselors for the Lifeline are trained to assess callers for suicide risk, provide crisis counseling, crisis intervention, and engage emergency services when needed. Over 2.2 million calls were answered by Lifeline Counselors in 2018 and evidence has shown that the hotline is effective in reducing suicidal ideation and attempts.

Congress also gave the FCC the task of examining the feasibility of establishing a new, simple and easy-to remember 3-digit number, to be used as the official suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline system in the United States. The approval of the proposal will initiate the rule making process for establishing 988 as the 3-digit code to call. Commissioners believe the number 988 could be implemented more easily and quickly than repurposing another existing 3-digit number. Some have called this new hotline the “911 for the brain.”

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Implementing the New National Suicide Prevention and Mental Health Crisis Hotline

The approved proposal will require cellphone carriers to implement the new 3-digit number within the next 18 months. Estimated costs for this transition will cost about $570 million in the first year, $175 million in the second, and will be used to increase capacity at crisis centers and public awareness. Bills approved by the Senate Commerce Committee would authorize states to collect fees aimed at ensuring that local crisis centers will be able to support the increase in volume.

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This move towards establishing a new and easier-to-remember number as the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is believed to be an important step in reducing stigma surrounding the topic of suicide. There is hope that a number resembling the well-known emergency line, 911, will reinforce the idea that it’s OK to seek help in times of extreme depression or anxiety.  The FCC will work alongside Congress to create and support the new 3-digit hotline while ensuring that States have the flexibility to make it work.

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