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Text Option Being Considered for National Suicide Prevention Hotline Number — 988

Phone carriers are already required to implement the number for voice calls by July 2022

A person dialing a number on a smartphone

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En español | The federal government will consider requiring phone carriers to implement a text message option for distressed individuals to reach the National Suicide Prevention Hotline and speak with a trained crisis professional.

Last year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) responded to the growing suicide epidemic across the U.S. by requiring all phone service providers to route calls made to 988 to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline crisis center by July 16, 2022. The current traditional-length number, 800-273-8255 (TALK), will then be nationally shortened to the three-digit number like the emergency number, 911.

The option to text the hotline will not only make the lifeline more accessible but also better assist those who are deaf, hard of hearing or have speech disabilities, said the proposal from FCC acting chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel.

The transition period will allow widespread network changes and give the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline time to prepare for an expected increase in calls, the FCC said.

“From the outset of this proceeding, I’ve thought the FCC should have a plan to make texting to 988 available as a tool for reaching the Lifeline.  To truly impact at-risk communities, including our youth, we must acknowledge that texting is their primary form of communication,” she 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 2018 the national network, made up of 163 locations, answered 2.2 million calls and responded to more than 100,000 online chats.

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, said former FCC chairman Ajit Pai.

In 2019 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 proposal, if approved, would begin the process to ensure the FCC can support text message access to crisis counseling. Meanwhile, rulemakers will discuss the types of text messaging that would be supported, adopt a nationwide deadline for it to be implemented and other logistical matters. Rosenworcel will meet with her colleagues for their consideration April 22.

Suicide rates in the U.S.

Suicide rates in the U.S. are at their highest levels since World War II. In 2018, suicide claimed the lives of more than 48,000 Americans, resulting in one death every 11 minutes.

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

From 1999 through 2018, suicide rates were highest for women ages 45 to 64 and for men 75 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“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 2019 FCC report said.

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

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 each 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 proposal for a text message option.

Aaron Kassraie writes about issues important to military veterans and their families for AARP. He also serves as a general assignment reporter. Kassraie previously covered U.S. foreign policy as a correspondent for the Kuwait News Agency’s Washington bureau and worked in news gathering for USA Today and Al Jazeera English.