Extreme stress scrambles the brain, but it's second nature to dial 911 to summon help in a crisis. Now a welcome sequel is coming, one that should allow mental health crises to be addressed more adeptly.

Pending federal legislation would establish 988 as the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which is currently 800-273-TALK, or 800-273-8255. The proposal to establish the number, currently in a period of public comment, has bipartisan support.

Anyone considering suicide should know that mental health disorders can be treated and that the hotline is available 24/7 at the existing nine-digit number. The 988 emergency number is not yet in use.

Suicide has been on an alarming rise. In 2017, more than 47,000 people in the United States died by suicide and 1.4 million attempted it. From 1999 to 2016, suicide increased in 49 of the 50 states.

While other types of gun violence grab headlines, by far the most gun deaths are suicides — a full two-thirds.

Suicide impacts all communities. It has increased among boys and girls ages 10 to 17; recently, the Tribune just told the story of a seventh-grade boy in Chicago who died this way. Six Chicago police officers died by suicide in an eight-month period in 2018-2019.

The toll is even higher in many at-risk communities. "More than 20 veterans die by suicide every day, and more than half a million LGBTQ youth will attempt suicide this year alone," said Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai. "A shorter, simpler suicide hotline number could be a game-changer."

Advocates say creating a simple three-digit dedicated number would allow mental health to command the same urgency as physical crises. They expect other benefits, too, including potential savings in offering an alternative to the dispatch of first responders.

With no choice but to call 911, "a police officer and ambulance shows up at their door. If that's how our society treats mental health emergencies, people aren't as likely to report," said John Draper, executive director of the national suicide lifeline. The proposed 988 number "would not only give them the right care, but it won't give them the wrong care."

When dialing 988, callers would speak to trained counselors who would evaluate whether the person needed emergency care or referral to other resources, as well as whether follow-up contact is warranted. People could also call 988 with concerns about friends or family members.

If the number is widely marketed and works as it should, there would be many more calls for mental health services. That's both the good news and the next challenge. Calls to the lifeline could double from 2.2 million in 2018, according to experts.

As with 911, phone-bill fees will provide extra dollars for staff and training. Crisis centers, aided by state and local governments and grants from nonprofits, must make sure there are plenty of trained staff waiting on the other end of the line.


Opinion editor's note: The Star Tribune Editorial Board has also urged adoption of the new three-digit hotline number. To read that editorial, go to http://bit.ly/hotlineedit.