We're One Step Closer To A '911'-Style Hotline For Suicide Prevention

The FCC voted in favor of establishing 988 as a shortcut number

Since 2005, people in America struggling with suicidal ideation have been able to call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) in order to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a free service that connects people in crisis with support and resources. Now, the Federal Communications Commission is moving to make reaching out for help even easier, by establishing “988” as a shortcut number.

CNN reports that the five members of the FCC voted unanimously in favor of the move on Thursday (December 12). The plan was first unveiled in August, in a report that stemmed from the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act of 2018. The FCC must now open the proposal to the public for at least 30 days to gauge consumer feedback.

While the Washington Post notes that the “988” number would cost an estimated $570 million in its first year, the FCC believes that’s a worthy investment in the growing suicide epidemic, and the broader struggle by Americans to find and maintain effective mental health support; the thinking is that a shorter number would be easier for people in moments of crisis to remember than a complete phone number.

An estimated 56 percent of Americans navigating mental health issues don’t receive the help they need, and suicide rates among teenagers has risen 56 percent from 2007 to 2017. It is now the second leading cause of death among young people aged 10 to 24.

On Thursday, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said that the committee believes that the implementation of 988 as a resouce “will help ease access to crisis services, it will reduce the stigma surrounding suicide and mental health conditions, and ultimately it will save lives.”

Experts have called the rise in suicide rates a public health crisis, and strongly caution against expecting people to figure things out on their own. Even if people want to find help on their own, there are systematic barriers in place that can make it difficult to find services. If you have health insurance, it’s possible that your plan may not cover the comprehensive mental health care you need, or that your insurance provider might fight some of the charges and create extrajudicial loopholes and fine print that limits their liability for your care. What’s more, 7.7 million young adults aged 19 to34 and 4.5 million children did not have health insurance at all in 2014.

As CNN notes, the current FCC proposal does not include an option to text for help, which could be crucial for young people who might feel more comfortable with text-based chatting rather than a phone call, those who aren’t comfortable speaking about their suicidal ideations out loud in their homes, and people with disabilities who prefer to text; designing the new hotline with accessibility in mind would ultimately be more helpful for everyone. Programs like the Crisis Text Line, which provides help to those who text “HOME” to 741741, and the Trevor Project’s crisis line, which LGBTQ+ youth dealing with suicidal ideation can reach by texting “START” to 678678, currently offer text-based support in addition to phone calls and web-based interfaces.

“It would be a mistake for us to build a system that presumes talk is the only starting point for discussion,” Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said. Ars Technica noted that the 30-day period calling for public feedback will help the FCC craft details for its implementation of 988, and the services that the shortcut number would provide.

More than 47,000 Americans died by suicide in 2017; it is the tenth-leading cause of death among adults in the country, and Everytown notes that the U.S. gun suicide rate is ten times higher than other high-income countries. Solving the suicide epidemic will take more than any one solve — comprehensive gun-law reform, an overhaul in healthcare access, and a societal shift regarding how we talk about suicide and suicidal ideation all play a part in helping those in need. It’s also crucial to lower the stigma against seeking help — you don’t need to be in a time of crisis to take care of your mental health.

If you or someone you know is struggling with their emotional health, head to for ways to get help.

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