If someone battling suicidal thoughts is willing to ask for help, the phone line where counselors can be reached 24 hours a day should be as easy to remember and as speedy to dial as 911. Instead, the nation’s suicide hotline number is 10 digits — 800-273-TALK — which heightens the risk of a misdial or a search for the number. That puts up a hurdle at the absolute worst time possible between someone in crisis and potentially lifesaving assistance.
Mental health advocates for years have been pushing for a three-digit suicide hotline number. That change has not yet been enacted, but important progress was made as 2019 came to a close. In 2020, both Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) need to finish this critical work so that 988 becomes the new number as soon as possible.
There’s an urgency to making the change. Suicide is one of the nation’s leading causes of death, particularly among young people. Veterans and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) communities are also at higher risk. In 2017, more than 47,000 Americans took their own lives, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. That’s more than twice the number of homicide victims.
A disturbing data point further underscores the need for action: The total suicide rate increased 31% from 2001 to 2017, according to federal health officials. In 2001, it stood at 10.7 per 100,000 Americans. In 2017, it was 14 per 100,000.
Changing the hotline number isn’t the only course of action needed, but it is a particularly sensible step. The current hotline, which is also available by texting HOME to 741741, is already a trusted resource. In 2018, counselors at a network of 163 federally funded crisis centers answered over 2.2 million calls, according to the FCC. Simplifying the number could help connect even more people who need help. “It’s a great idea,” said Sue Abderholden, executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota.
The FCC merits praise for recently moving a three-digit number closer to reality. In August, the agency sent a report to Congress recommending the change. In December, the FCC announced it has started the formal process of designating 988 as the new number.
It’s not clear how long it will take for this to happen. But the agency’s notice of proposed rule-making involves requiring telecommunications companies to make the required network changes within 18 months. As part of the process, the agency will seek input on whether a longer time frame is needed to make the switch or whether it can be done faster. “After a period of public comment, we will review that public record before moving to final rules,” an FCC spokesman told an editorial writer this week. “Chairman [Ajit] Pai has said this is a top priority and we hope to move forward on final rules as soon as possible, but we don’t have a set timeline.”
Congress also needs to act to provide funding. Legislation has been introduced in both the House and Senate, but progress has been slow for a bill with bipartisan support. The House version’s lead author is Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah. Cosponsors include two members of Minnesota’s delegation: Rep. Angie Craig, a Democrat, and Rep. Tom Emmer, a Republican.
In the meantime, those who need help should still use the current hotline number 800-273-TALK (8255) or the text line. Some mental health advocates are concerned that news reports about the FCC’s recent move may have created an impression that 988 is up and running. It is not, and strong leadership within Congress and at the FCC is critical in 2020 to make it a reality.