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FCC moves to designate 988 a national suicide-prevention hotline number

FCC moves to designate 988 a national suicide-prevention hotline number
© Greg Nash

Americans may soon be able to dial 988 to reach mental health providers if they are feeling suicidal under a new proposal approved by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

All five FCC commissioners on Thursday voted in favor of a proposal to designate 988 as the country's national suicide-prevention hotline number, arguing that having a 911-like option for people who are experiencing mental health crises could help combat the rising rate of suicides in the U.S. 

"The need for suicide prevention services has never been greater in modern times," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said at the FCC's open meeting on Thursday.

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The proposal, which is now open to public comment, asks telecom companies to ensure users can dial 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline within 18 months.

The toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is currently 1-800-273-TALK, which commissioners have argued is hard to remember. And the workers behind the hotline are facing a crunch as they handle more and more calls every year.

Last year alone, the government-backed suicide hotline answered more than 2 million calls, and the FCC is predicting that the 988 designation will lead to even more calls. That could require Congress to appropriate more funds to bolster Lifeline's work.

"Easier access to the Lifeline will mean increased calls and to greater demand for crisis services, which in turn will require increased resources," Pai said on Thursday. "As we move forward with this proceeding, we encourage interested stakeholders to work directly with Congress and our federal partners who run the Lifeline." 

The suicide rate in the U.S. has been climbing for decades, spiking 33 percent between 1999 and 2017, according to the American Psychological Association. More than 47,000 Americans died by suicide in 2017, according to public data.

"Today’s [proposal] addresses a pressing need for expanded access to suicide prevention and mental health crisis services—for children, teens, and the millions of other Americans impacted by suicide," said Democratic FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks on Thursday. "Establishing a simple three-digit number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline will better connect those in need with life-saving services."