FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, announced today that the agency is taking the next step to establish 988 as the nationwide 3-digit number for mental health, substance use, and suicide crisis, mirroring what 911 is for medical emergencies. He notes that 988 is critical to combat the rising number of suicides by making it easier for Americans in crisis to get the assistance they need from trained counselors. “988 will save lives. Helping Americans in crisis connect to counselors trained in suicide prevention is one of the most important things we can do at the FCC.”
This morning, Pai shared with NBC’s Today Show that the agency will vote on final rules at its next open meeting on July 16. If adopted, the regulations would require all phone service carriers to start directing 988 calls to the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800.237.TALK or chat) by July 16, 2022. Pai told Sheinelle Jones, journalist and Today co-host, that 988 would give people quicker access to appropriate life-saving care, “so they know they are loved.” The change, he points out, focuses on the urgency of behavioral health and suicide crises but also on fostering parity and reducing the stigma of mental health.
The Lifeline, which is administered by the nonprofit Vibrant Emotional Health and funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), effectively reduces suicidal and emotional distress. The Lifeline local call centers provide 24/7 free and confidential support to people in emotional distress or suicidal crisis across the United States. They can deescalate 98% of calls, diverting people from high-cost ER visits, inpatient hospitalization, overburdened emergency operators, jails, and law enforcement.
The two year transition period will give phone providers time to make any necessary network changes and allow Congress, federal agencies, and local call centers to prepare for an increase in call and chat volume, which experts estimate will rise twofold at minimum. In 2019, the Lifeline answered over 2.2 million calls. If the number of calls double or more in the first year, it would result in at least 4.4 to 5 million callers. Pai notes that during the transition, Americans should continue to contact the Lifeline, and asks his colleagues for rules approval:
“…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.”