Federal regulators are in the process of setting up a new three-digit number — 988 — that can be used anywhere in the nation, the same way 911 is — but this one will reach a suicide prevention hotline.
Or, as some are calling it, a “warmline.” The hope is that callers will use it to find help during mental-health crises before they become desperate.
According to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, “988 has an echo of the 911 number we all know as an emergency number, and we believe that this 3-digit number, dedicated for this purpose, will help ease access to crisis services. It’ll reduce the stigma surrounding suicide and mental health conditions. And it’ll ultimately save lives.”
It’s past time for such a resource.
The FCC began studying a three-digit number for suicide prevention more than a year ago. So far, the idea has received overwhelming support from government officials.
Currently, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline uses a 10-digit number, 800-273-TALK (8255). Counselors answered 2.2 million calls last year.
Suicide rates in the U.S. have increased dramatically over the past two decades — by more than 30%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They’ve been especially high among veterans and in the LGBTQ community.
And they’ve been growing among American farmers. In 2018, they had the highest rate of sucide, by profession, by more than 30 percent.
Growing suicide rates have also been linked to the opioid epidemic that has been such a scourge in rural communities.
Help has been hard to come by for many. There were 45,000 suicide deaths in 2016, each leaving behind parents, children and other loved ones who wish they could have prevented the tragic loss.
Public health experts say that with the right help, suicide is preventable. “Reaching out ... can save a life,” said Jill Harkavy-Friedman, a clinical psychologist and vice president of research at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “Everybody can play a role.”
But a three-digit number is not enough alone to prevent tragedy. According to some local crisis center directors, the network is currently overwhelmed and underfunded. More government resources are needed.
Beyond crisis intervention, we need to start looking honestly at the factors that lead to hopelessness, especially among our young people. When the future looks bleak, despair gains a foothold.
Though the wheels have been set in motion, this process won’t be a quick one; it’ll likely be 2021 before a three-digit number is available for use. Supporters in Congress are trying to speed up the legislation.
In the meantime, the FCC is taking public comments.
To make a comment online, go to: https://www.fcc.gov/ecfs/filings/express
The docket number is 18-336.