Three-Digit Number for the U.S. Suicide Prevention Hotline Coming in 2022

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Content warning: This article contains mentions of suicide throughout.

Callers will be able to reach volunteers trained in assisting people through mental health crises by dialing 9–8–8 by 2022.

The Federal Communications Commission authorized the three-digit phone number for reaching the United States National Suicide Prevention Hotline in a unanimous vote at an open meeting July 16.

F.C.C. Chairman Ajit Pai said that an easy-to-remember phone number will help address the rising rates of suicide across the U.S.

“My hope is that by establishing a government-backed 988 suicide and mental health three-digit dialing code, on par with the 911 dialing code all Americans know for emergencies, we will send a powerful signal that there is nothing shameful about seeking help in times of crisis. That it’s a sign of strength, not one of weakness. We will let people know that they are not alone,” Pai said in a statement.

The National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act of 2018

The new phone number was two years in the making. In 2018, Congress passed the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act, which allowed the F.C.C. to explore the possibility of shortening the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Hotline from a standard 10-digit phone number to just a three-digit code. The F.C.C. recommended the number 9–8–8 in a report released in August 2019.

Pai said in a media release that month that a three-digit number “would likely make it easier for Americans in crisis to access potentially life-saving resources.”

A draft of the report was released in December 2019 as a notice of proposed rulemaking and was open for public comment before the F.C.C. voted on the final rule.

The vote, held July 16, supported moving forward to make 9–8–8 the new National Suicide Hotline.

“…we will send a powerful signal that there is nothing shameful about seeking help in times of crisis. That it’s a sign of strength, not one of weakness.”

— F.C.C. Chairman Ajit Pai

Suicide: a growing problem among vulnerable communities

The pending roll-out of the shortened number comes at a time when U.S. suicide rates are higher than any point since World War II. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S.

The F.C.C. acknowledged that some populations face a higher risk than others.

Military veterans, LGBTQIA+ youth and young adults, teenage girls, Black Americans, Native Americans, rural residents and college students with certain disabilities are more likely to die by suicide, the F.C.C. noted in its rule.

The COVID-19 pandemic is expected to worsen existing mental health conditions and may contribute to the increasing rate of suicide across the U.S. A report by Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services found that “calls to national suicide hotlines have increased an average of 47%, with some crisis lines experiencing a 300% increase in calls” during the pandemic.

Making 9–8–8 a reality

A few obstacles remain before 9–8–8 can become the official U.S. National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

According to CNN, the F.C.C. is not yet prepared for the expected influx of calls to the centers that 9–8–8 will route to and may seek federal funding to recruit and train more call center volunteers.

The HEROES Act, the U.S. Democrats’ coronavirus relief package, contained the bipartisan National Suicide Hotline Designation Act in May 2020, which would address the mental health crisis associated with the pandemic by allocating funds to staffing 9–8–8 call centers. While the bill was passed in the Democrat-controlled House, it was declared “dead on arrival” in the Republican-led Senate.

In a statement, the F.C.C.’s Pai said that July 16, 2022, is the “earliest technically-feasible date” at which 9–8–8 could effectively route all calls to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline call centers. He said that some phone companies asked the F.C.C. to roll out the new number region by region, but the F.C.C. has other plans.

“We believe that a uniform implementation date will minimize potentially deadly consumer confusion that could result from having 988 available in some, but not all, areas,” Pai said.

Until the 9–8–8 hotline number is active, people in crisis can reach the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Hotline by calling 1–800–273-TALK (8255).

To get help, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline or use their text line. For crisis support in Spanish, call 1–888–628–9454.

The Trans Lifeline is available in English and Spanish at 1–877–565–8860. Service members, veterans and their families can call the Lines for Life Military Hotline at 1–888–457–4838 or text MIL1 to 839863.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website or call 1–800–950-NAMI (6264). For confidential treatment referrals, call the National Helpline at 1–800–662-HELP (4357).

By Emily Rose Thorne

Emily Rose Thorne is a senior at Mercer University studying journalism, women’s and gender studies, and anthropology. She is the editor-in-chief of The Cluster and has bylines for Macon Magazine, Georgia Public Broadcasting, Step Up Magazine, and Atlanta magazine. She also hosts a reproductive justice podcast, Between The Bills. Emily Rose’s work focuses on gender, sexuality, social justice, and health.

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