Although National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month is behind us, the suicide epidemic in our country is, unfortunately, still a very real problem. Suicide is the 10th most common cause of death in the U.S., leading to more than 47,000 deaths in 2017. 

Currently, the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255), but mental health professionals believe that a memorable three-digit hotline will make it easier for those in distress to seek help, similar to the 911 system. We teach our children from a young age how to get medical help in an emergency, but “we don’t have a 911 for the brain,” notes David Covington, CEO of RI International, a nonprofit that provides behavioral health care around the country.

The FCC is proposing making 988 the new national number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is proposing making 988 the new national number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. The FCC considered several options for the dialing code, including repurposing some existing codes like 511 or 611, before deciding on 988.

“This is a great idea,” Madelyn Gould, a psychiatrist at Columbia University, told NPR. “People can have a cognitive shutdown or blank, as any of us do, when we can’t remember things during times of extreme stress.”

Implementation is key

But Gould cautions that the new hotline alone wouldn’t be enough, and stresses the need for additional funding for services. There are currently more than 160 crisis centers around the country, each with its own funding, and some centers are better resourced than others. Without the necessary budget to increase staff and volunteers, callers could be left with much longer wait times — a serious danger to someone who’s already in a state of panic. 

“We know that it’s really important for people to get live answers very quickly when they call one of these numbers or one of these centers,” attests Allie Franklin, the executive director of Crisis Connections, one of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline centers in Washington. “[W]e strive to answer the line within 30 seconds, 95% of the time or more.”

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is committed to implementing this proposed change as soon as possible.

“There is a suicide epidemic in this country, and it is disproportionately affecting at-risk populations, including our Veterans and LGBTQ youth,” said a statement from Pai. “Crisis call centers have been shown to save lives.” 

Covington hopes that the accessability of the new hotline will reduce some of the stigma around mental illness in the U.S., and make it easier for people to seek help.

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