New York — 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. Currently, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline uses a 10-digit number, 800-273-TALK (8255). Callers are routed to one of 163 crisis centers, where counselors answered 2.2 million calls last year.
A law last year required the FCC to study assigning a three-digit number for suicide prevention. The FCC said in a report that there is overwhelming support for a three-digit number because it would be easier for distressed people to get help.
Thursday’s vote starts the months-long process to make that happen. The next step is a comment period before the FCC moves to an order.
The government’s action comes as suicide rates have increased across the U.S. over the past two decades, and dramatically so — by more than 30% — in half of U.S. states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There were 45,000 deaths in 2016.
The new, shorter number would likely lead to more calls, which in turn would mean more expenses for crisis centers already struggling to keep up. If the number of calls to the hotline doubled, centers would need an extra $50 million a year to handle the increase, the FCC said, citing the federal agency that funds the hotline, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
The FCC determined that it would be better to have a new number that’s only for the hotline, rather than one that’s currently used for other purposes, such as 911. The agency behind the suicide hotline says that a number just for it helps reduce the burden on local 911 centers, “freeing up lifesaving and crime-fighting resources.” It says it makes sense to have a standalone number because people making calls because of suicidal thoughts can be helped just by talking them through it, without needing to send a first responder.
This agency, Vibrant Emotional Health, which runs the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, also says that having a separate 3-digit number just for the hotline could reduce the stigma of using it.
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