January 25, 2020
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New 3-digit suicide hotline can help improve access to counseling and reduce stigma

Jenny Kane | AP
Jenny Kane | AP
In this Aug. 11, 2019, file photo, a man uses a cell phone in New Orleans. The Federal Communications Commission is setting up a new three-digit number to reach a suicide prevention hotline. Once it's implemented, people will just need to dial 988 to seek help, similar to calling 911 for emergencies or 311 for city services.

To reach a suicide prevention hotline, call 888-568-1112 or 800-273-TALK (8255), or visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: You are not alone.

Suicidal thoughts don’t discriminate — they can affect anyone. A key to reducing America’s troubling rise in suicide rates is reducing the associated stigma and helping people in crisis get the counseling they need.

The Federal Communications Commission is poised to take a good step forward in this regard, voting unanimously Thursday in favor of a plan to create a three-digit suicide prevention hotline — 988 — that people can call to access crisis services.

The FCC vote now jumpstarts a rulemaking process, and related legislation is moving through Congress, so this remains a work in progress. But it’s important work.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicicde rate jumped 33 percent nationally from 1999 to 2017. Switching to a nationwide three-digit hotline, rather than the existing 10-digit number, isn’t going to reverse this trend on its own. But it can make this critical service more accessible while raising awareness and combating stigma.

“988 has an echo of the 911 number we all know as an emergency number. And we believe that this three-digit number dedicated for this purpose will help ease access to crisis services, it will reduce the stigma surrounding suicide and mental health conditions, and ultimately it will save lives,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said during Thursday’s commission meeting, according to CNN.

Created in 2005, The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential support 24 hours a day and seven days a week to people who are “in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.” The current number is 800-273-8255. Maine has its own crisis hotline at 888-568-1112.

Last year, Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act, which required the FCC to study the effectiveness of the existing national helpline and assess the feasibility of a three-digit line.

The resulting FCC report authors found that while the current hotline has been effective, “we also find that the Lifeline could be more effective in preventing suicides and providing crisis intervention if it were accessible via a simple, easy-to-remember, 3-digit dialing code.”

“In particular, we are cognizant of the value presented by such a code, which could better enable callers in crisis to connect expeditiously to the Lifeline and receive immediate help from crisis counselors,” the report continued.

Importantly, having an established three-digit number to call can help break down some of the stigma surrounding suicide and mental illness, and hopefully lead to more people to seeking help when they need it.

“The three-digit number is really going to be a breakthrough in terms of reaching people in a crisis,” said Dwight Holton, the CEO of suicide prevention nonprofit Lines for Life, as reported by the Associated Press. “No one is embarrassed to call 911 for a fire or an emergency. No one should be embarrassed to call 988 for a mental health emergency.”

The FCC report estimates than the switch to 988 will cost $570 million in the first year and $175 million the second year — including the costs of increasing call capacity.

Legislation under consideration in both the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives would allow states to implement telecommunication fees to help fund increased call volume at local crisis centers.

Congress will continue to be involved in the 988 implementation, and the FCC is taking public comment on the proposal. We agree with FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel that the new three-digit helpline would be stronger if it allowed people to text and not just call for help.

“Texting is primary for so many young people, and it would be a mistake for us to build a system that presumes talk is the only starting point for discussion,” Rosenworcel said Thursday.

Given the size of the investment that this new system will require, it would seem to make sense to try incorporating the ability to text the three-digit hotline now as it’s being created, rather than consider doing so down the road. It is worth noting, however, that crisis text lines do exist. Anyone texting HOME to 741741 will be connected to a crisis counselor.

The immediate connection to crisis services provided by helplines — and the availability of mental health services generally, is critical in the effort to save more Americans from suicide. A more accessible helpline alone doesn’t solve the daunting task ahead, and there are more details yet to be worked out, but this three-digit line will be a welcome step in the right direction.

 



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