The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday unanimously approved a shorter, three-digit version of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline ― 988 ― to make it easier for Americans to seek help for themselves or a loved one.
Under the new rule, phone service providers will have until July 2022 to activate the new number, which, when dialed, will directly connect the caller to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a national network of crisis centers.
“Establishing the easy-to-remember 988 as the ‘911’ for suicide prevention and mental health services will make it easier for Americans in crisis to access the help they need,” FCC chair Ajit Pai said in a statement. “Additionally, this achievement, and all the efforts to publicize 988 in the time to come, will reduce the stigma in our society surrounding suicide and mental illness.”
The current number, 1-800-273-8255 (1-800-273-TALK), will remain in effect.
Although people can contact the crisis centers through a 24/7 online chat system, the new phone number will not work for text messages, a limitation that FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel raised in a statement Thursday.
“In light of the skyrocketing rates of suicide among our nation’s young people, I think this agency should have been more ambitious,” she said. “As we confront the rise in suicide by teenagers across the country, we should acknowledge that texting is their primary form of communication. Voice service has its benefits, but it is not native for most young people. So I regret today’s decision is anchored in older technologies and takes a pass on developing texting capabilities with this three-digit hotline. We should have done so here. I sincerely hope we can do so in the future.”
A text message option would also help people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
The issue has taken on added urgency because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the last few months, suicide prevention centers around the country have reported a surge in calls, and mental health experts have warned that the prolonged isolation and stress brought on by the pandemic could have grave effects.
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.