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FCC Moves to Establish 988 as the National Number for Mental Health and Suicide Crisis

FCC Moves to Establish 988 as the National Number for Mental Health and Suicide Crisis

Stephanie Hepburn is a writer in New Orleans. She is the editor in chief of #CrisisTalk. You can reach her at .​

On Tuesday, FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, took a critical step in establishing 988 as the nationwide number for mental health and suicide emergencies, mirroring what the three-digit-number 911 is for medical crises. The FCC Commission will vote on Pai’s proposal on December 12th. In his announcement, Pai said all calls would redirect to the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. He stated that after considerable analysis, his staff thinks the FCC can get 988 up and running faster than other 3-digit numbers and that “quicker access will mean more lives saved.” 

Pai highlighted that suicide rates in the United States are on the rise—a 33% increase from 1999 through 2017. Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for people ages 10-34, and the 10th leading cause of death overall. He pointed to increases among vulnerable populations, including veterans and L.G.B.T.Q. youth. There have also been critical shifts in suicide attempts. For example, a study released in the October issue of Pediatrics looked at the trends of suicidal behavior of high school students and found that the number of African American adolescents who self-reported suicide attempts rose 73% between 1991 and 2017. 

Making it easier for people in need to seek help does result in an increase in the number of calls that come into the Lifeline. As an example, Chairman Pai pointed to the song released by Logic titled after the Lifeline number: 1-800-273-8255. The popularity of the song made the number better known and thereby more accessible to those who needed it, resulting in a 27% increase in calls during the three weeks following the song’s release. “If one pop song can significantly move the needle, just imagine how many more people could get the help they need if there were an easy-to-remember 3-digit number for emergency suicide prevention and mental health services.”

As in a medical crisis, time is of the essence in a mental health emergency. Pai emphasized that awareness of 988, and how easy the number is to remember, will be a game-changer for people experiencing a mental health emergency, providing a readily available, and much-needed, help for people in need. If Pai’s proposal is adopted by a vote on December 12th, the FCC Commission will then begin taking public comments, and after review, will determine whether and how to move forward to formally designate 988 as the nationwide number for mental health and suicide crisis. 

Chairman Pai’s announcement took place from the National Council for Behavioral Health where other speakers applauded the step forward, including Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz, SAMHSA assistant secretary for mental health and substance use, Olivia Hussey from Rep. Seth Moulton’s office, Sam Brinton, head of advocacy and government affairs at the Trevor Project, David C. Guth, Jr., Centerstone CEO and co-founder, Cory Gardner, Senator from Colorado, and David Carroll, executive director of the Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention at Veterans Affairs. In support of the announcement, Hussey tweeted out, “It’s time to treat suicide like any other medical emergency” and David Covington, CEO and president of RI International and partner of Behavioral Health Link wrote, “If one pop song can move the dial that much (Logic’s @800273TALK), what would be the impact of a simple to remember three-digit number to access a mental health crisis line?!”

Chairman Pai ended his announcement with these words:

“Establishing 988 as a hotline for suicide prevention and mental health services would help so many people. At this very moment, there are Americans all across this country who are struggling. They are searching for answers. They are searching for hope. They are searching for connection. And to them, I say, ‘You are not alone.’ The FCC is committed to helping. The people in this room are committed to helping. A simple number, 988, could be the lifeline that makes all the difference. Working together, we can make this happen. Working together, we can and we will save lives.”

Want to know more? Here’s an editorial that goes into why it’s time to establish a mental health lifeline in the United States: