POLITICS

FCC Approves A New 3-Digit Suicide Hotline

When the rule is finalized, people struggling with suicidal thoughts will be able to get help by dialing 988.

The Federal Communications Commission unanimously approved designating a three-digit phone number ― 988 ― as the country’s nationwide suicide hotline on Thursday.

The five-member commission’s decision is now up for public comment before it can be formally implemented. The impetus behind the proposal was to establish a hotline that was easy to remember and quick to dial. 

“988 has an echo of the 911 number we all know as an emergency number,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said during the commission’s open meeting on Thursday. “And we believe that this three-digit number dedicated for this purpose will help ease access to crisis services, it will reduce the stigma surrounding suicide and mental health conditions, and ultimately it will save lives.”

If and when the policy goes into effect, calls to 988 will automatically be directed to the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a network of 163 crisis centers funded by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Establishing the three-digit hotline is personal for FCC commissioner Michael O’Rielly, who shared at Thursday’s meeting that his brother-in-law had died by suicide. 

“I pray that this item has the impact that we expect it to,” O’Rielly said. “I hope it really does save lives.”

But he also took the time to say a hotline is no cure for America’s suicide crisis.

I pray that this item has the impact that we expect it to. I hope it really does save lives. FCC commissioner Michael O’Rielly

“I do want to say, there is a portion of people out there that no matter what number is chosen, no matter how easy it is to dial, it will make no difference. They have made a choice and head down a different direction — I have experience on this,” O’Rielly said. “My brother-in-law left this world two and a half months ago under his own hand, and it didn’t matter what number was going to be there.”

Recent data show “worrying trends in U.S. suicide rates,” the American Psychological Association said in March. The country’s suicide rate increased 33% from 1999 through 2017, from 10.5 to 14 suicides per 100,000 people, the National Center for Health Statistics has found.

Today, it’s the fourth leading cause of death among people ages 35 to 54, and the second for those ages 10 to 34. The figures are especially alarming for young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Young people in that community seriously contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of their heterosexual peers, one study found.

The Trevor Project, a group focused on preventing suicide among LGBT youth, praised Thursday’s development.

“It is critically important that this proposal is implemented as swiftly as possible and that all Lifeline counselors are provided with LGBTQ cultural competency training to best serve LGBTQ youth in crisis,” Sam Brinton, the Trevor Project’s head of advocacy and government affairs, said in a statement.

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the three-digit number for the hotline in the first paragraph. It is 988.

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