Many people don’t even remember a time before 911—when getting emergency service meant dialing 0 or running to the local police or fire station. Yet, it wasn’t until the FCC met with AT&T in 1967 to establish an easy-to-remember nationwide emergency code that 911 was created. The step the FCC took on Thursday was an equally landmark moment with the potential to vastly alter how Americans respond to a mental health crisis. The agency’s commission voted unanimously in favor of Chairman Ajit Pai’s proposal to formally designate 988 as the nationwide number for mental health and suicide crisis. The word that comes to mind for many after hearing the decision is parity.
During the commission’s meeting on Thursday, Chairman Pai said a dedicated 3-digit number would “… reduce stigma surrounding suicide and mental health conditions, and… ultimately save lives.” The FCC has begun to seek public comments on the proposal, and after review, will determine how to best move forward with the rulemaking process. According to the FCC’s press release, the agency seeks comments on all aspects of implementation, such as “whether a longer or shorter time frame is needed to make 988 a reality.”
Thursday’s groundbreaking vote is the newest step in a bipartisan effort to address the rise in suicides in the United States, which is experiencing its highest rate of suicide since World War II. It’s the 10th leading cause of death for Americans overall and the 2nd leading cause of death for people ages 10-34. Particularly vulnerable populations are veterans, LGBTQ youth, and also non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native (AIAN) whose suicide rates have increased by 139% among females and 71% among males. There are also significant increases in suicide attempts. For instance, the number of African American adolescents who self-reported suicide attempts rose by 73% between 1991 and 2017. According to the CDC, in 2017, 10.6 million American adults seriously thought about suicide, 3.2 million made a plan, and 1.4 attempted suicide. Researchers know that the duration of time between a person deciding to act and attempting suicide can be as brief as 5 or 10 minutes, making time in a psychological crisis no less critical than during a medical one. That’s why last year, Congress passed the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act of 2018, tasking the FCC, in consultation with SAMHSA and the Department of Veterans Affairs, with looking into an easy-to-remember, 3-digit dialing code for mental health and suicide crisis.
Under the FCC proposal, all calls made to 988 will redirect to the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which has a network of 163 crisis centers that answer more than 2.2 million calls per year and over 100,000 chats online. An easy to recall number, said Pai, will improve access to crisis services for people experiencing a mental health or suicide crisis, matching them with the help they need in the time they need it. The proposal gives 18-months for telecommunication carriers to make any necessary network changes to ensure that users can dial 988 and reach the Lifeline.
In a recorded statement released on Thursday, Chairman Pai discussed next steps highlighting the FCC’s desire to move forward:
“After we review public input on this idea, we hope to move forward and make 988 the national number for suicide prevention and mental health crisis services. In the meantime, be sure to remember that services are available now at 1-800-273-TALK. Our hearts go out to those who are struggling, and we hope to move as quickly as we can in order to help them get the help they need and deserve.”
Want to share your thoughts with the FCC on the Implementation of the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act of 2018, WC Docket No. 18-336? You can do so here: https://www.fcc.gov/ecfs/.