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988 Proposed as National Suicide Prevention Hotline Number

FCC seeks to shorten the lifesaving number to just three digits

A person dialing a number on a smartphone

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En español | In response to a growing suicide epidemic across the U.S., the federal government has proposed starting the process to establish a new national three-digit number like 911 that would connect callers with lifesaving resources in times of mental crisis.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is recommending 988 to route callers to their closest National Suicide Prevention Lifeline crisis center. The number to use now is a traditional length, 800-273-8255 (TALK).

In 2018, the national network, made up of 163 locations, answered 2.2 million calls and responded to more than 100,000 online chats.

“When it comes to saving lives, time is of the essence, and we believe that 988 can be activated more quickly than other possible three-digit codes,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said Tuesday.  “In addition, 988 has an echo of the 911 number we all know as an emergency number."

In a review of 550 suicidal individuals who reached out to the hotline, 95 percent of them reported that the call stopped them from killing themselves, Pai said.

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A silhouette of a depressed man with his head down against a green background

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11 warning signs of suicide

1. Talking about wanting to die or to kill themselves
2. Looking for a way to kill themselves, such as searching online or buying a gun
3. Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
4. Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
5. Talking about being a burden to others
6. Increasing use of alcohol or drugs
7. Acting anxious or agitated, behaving recklessly
8. Sleeping too little or too much
9. Withdrawing or isolating themselves
10. Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
11. Having extreme mood swings

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

In August the FCC sent a report to five congressional committees explaining why suicide crisis calls should not be funneled through 911. It detailed that the system is not suited to provide counseling or to respond to calls that can be handled through conversation with trained professionals.

The federally financed National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The FCC will vote on the proposal at its Dec. 12 public meeting. If it is supported, a public comment period will open. Then the commission will decide how to proceed with the final rules.

“We intend for this to be the kick-starter for a public conversation, and we want to get meaningful input from the public,” Pai said.

Suicide rates in the U.S. are at their highest levels since World War II. In 2017 more than 47,000 Americans died from suicide, a 33 percent increase since 1999.

“An increase in calls will mean increased demand for crisis centers, which will require increased resources,” the chairman said, asking for support from Congress, relevant federal agencies and nonprofits.

In 2017 people ages 45 to 64 had the highest suicide rate per 100,000, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"More than 20 veterans die by suicide every day and between 2008 and 2016, there were more than 6,000 veteran suicides each year,” the August FCC report says. “According to the CDC, LGBTQ youth contemplate suicide at a rate almost three times higher than heterosexual youth, and more than 500,000 LGBTQ youth will attempt suicide this year."

In 2017 suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in nationwide; 47,173 people took their own lives that year, according to a CDC report in released in June.

If the 988 number takes effect, it will have a “Press 1 function” that will connect veterans to the Veteran Crisis Line; this hotline already receives an average of 1,800 to 1,900 calls a day and dispatches up to 100 rescue personnel per day.

In 2016, the suicide rate was 1.5 times greater for veterans than for other adults, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Editor’s note: This article, originally published Aug. 16, 2019, has been updated with the latest remarks and proposed timeline.

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