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Federal Communication Commission shortens suicide hotline number

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A crisis counseling sign on the Golden gate Bridge, San Francisco. Starting in July, callers in crisis will just dial 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, making it much easier than dialing the current 10-digit number. 

The Federal Communications Commission has created a new three-digit dialing code that will connect callers to the nationwide suicide prevention hotline for suicide and mental health awareness crises. 

The FCC hopes with this new, shorter number, people who need access to mental health professionals or who are in crisis situations remember the number better. Just as a person dials 911 for emergencies, people who need access to mental health and suicide crises care can call 988. 

“There are urgent mental health realities driving the need for crisis service transformation across our country,” the FCC said. “In 2020 alone, the U.S. had one death by suicide about every 11 minutes—and for people aged 10-34 years, suicide is a leading cause of death.”

The old 11-digit number made it hard to remember in emergency situations. The hope with shortening this number is that people will have better access to care, and the suicide rate will go down. 

National Public Radio’s health correspondent Rhitu Chatterjee is concerned that states aren’t fully prepared for the change. 

“But only four states have passed legislation to fund 988 and associated services, and just about half have a plan for when the line goes live,” Chatterjee told NPR. “That said, mental health advocates say this new number launch is a historic event. It's just going to take a while to have the system up and fully functional. And remember, until 988 launch on Saturday, anyone in crisis can call 1-800-273-8255.”

Chatterjee says this new number is essential for mental illness and hopes that this will change the way people have received care in the past. 

“So right now, there just aren't many options for people experiencing a mental health crisis,” Chatterjee said. “A growing number of people are using the 10-digit Suicide Prevention Lifeline, but the vast majority really just call 911 and end up in an ER waiting for hours in these frenetic ERs, and sometimes even days, to get care.”

The FCC and mental health advocates are hopeful that when the system becomes fully functional across the country, the rate of suicide will go down and crises related to mental health will be treated properly. They also exaggerate that not all states have a functioning 988 number yet, especially those with 988 area codes and seven-digit dialing. 

“As part of the two-year nationwide transition to 988, more than 80 area codes had to shift to 10-digit dialing,” the FCC said. “To ensure that calls to 988 reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, all covered providers were required to implement 10-digit dialing in areas that both use seven-digit dialing and use 988 as the first three numbers in seven-digit phone numbers. If consumers accidently dial 988 as part of a local call, they must hang up and dial again using the area code and the seven-digit number.”

For more information regarding the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, please visit fcc.gov or 988lifeline.org, and if your state does not have the number live yet, help can still be reached at 1-800-273-8255 indefinitely.