Federal regulators are setting up a new three-digit number to reach a suicide prevention hotline in order to make it easier to seek help and reduce the stigma associated with mental health.
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.
The FCC said in a recent 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, 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 report noted that from 1999 to 2016, suicide increased in every state except Nevada. It also noted that suicide rates are higher with at-risk populations, including veterans and the LGBTQ community.
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. Advocates say that having a dedicated number, along with a message that mental health is of equivalent importance as medical emergencies, could help reduce the stigma of calling the number.
Vibrant Emotional Health, which runs the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, said a dedicated number will also reduce the burden on local 911 centers, “freeing up lifesaving and crime-fighting resources.”
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, said people making calls because of suicidal thoughts can often be helped just by talking them through it, without needing to send a first responder.