The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is moving forward with plans to establish 988 as the emergency telephone number for suicide prevention in an effort to address a public health crisis on average claiming the lives of more than 120 Americans per day.
The FCC will vote as early as next month to implement 988, which it says will be easier for Americans to remember than the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number: 1-800-273-8255 (1-800-273-TALK).
The effort comes nearly two years after President Donald Trump signed the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act, which required the FCC to examine the feasibility of designating a three-digit dialing code for the suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline. The report, compiled with help from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) and other federal agencies, concluded that the launch of a simple, easy-to-remember number would likely be more effective in preventing suicides and providing crisis intervention.
“988 will save lives,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement. “Helping Americans in crisis connect to counselors trained in suicide prevention is one of the most important things we can do at the FCC.”
If adopted, telecommunications carriers and voice-over-IP (VoIP) service providers would be required to implement the change across all networks by July 2022. The current lifeline number (1-800-273-8255) is to remain active after the change.
Considerable thought went into choosing 988. SAMSHA and other agencies, such as the North American Numbering Council (NANC), examined a variety of options, including the expansion of existing emergency numbers, also known as N11 codes. Numbers such as 211, 511, and 611 were considered as possible alternatives. According to NANC, there are currently eight approved N11 codes and only two share “some common purpose” with crisis and suicide hotlines—211 and 911.
It was determined that expanding 211 would create “confusion and inefficiencies” in the system because 211 is already widely associated with information, for use in natural disasters, for instance, as opposed to mental health and crisis intervention. Use of 911 was dismissed because call-volume projections indicated the 911 system would be overwhelmed, among other dispatcher training-related issues.
988 is also regarded as having specific technical advantages: For example, it is not currently in use as an area code or as a prefix (the three-digit number following the area code), smoothing the implementation process. The FCC did find, however, that a “relatively small percentage” of legacy switching systems are currently unable to accommodate the 988 code.
In 2003, for example, NANC identified seven switching systems unable to support non-N11 codes, such as the Nortel DMS-10 and the Ericsson AXE. “As telephone companies continue to upgrade their legacy networks, we expect these legacy switches will be replaced, ultimately making the use of 988 as a designated suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline ubiquitous,” the agency said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2018 a spike in suicide rates across the U.S. even as rates in most other developing nations were on the decline. The report identified suicide as the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. and one of only “three leading causes that are on the rise.” Suicide has been among the top 12 leading causes of death in the U.S. since 1975, according to the CDC. It is the third leading cause of death for children ages 12-14. In 2017, more first responders died from suicide than in the line of duty, according to the Ruderman Family Foundation.
“Establishing this special purpose number will also highlight the urgency of addressing rising suicide rates in America and reduce the stigma too often associated with seeking assistance from suicide prevention and mental health services,” said FCC Chairman Pai. “I hope my colleagues will join me in supporting these final rules. By doing so, we would send a message to every American: You are not alone.”
Gizmodo reached out to the other four FCC commissioners about the vote but has yet to receive a response. A spokesperson for FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said he is still reviewing the details of the proposal.
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741. If you are a veteran or service member you can speak with a qualified U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs responder at 1-800-273-8255 (Press 1).
Update, 2:15pm: FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel tweeted after publication that committing to a 3-digit number is “good news and a good development.”