The FCC unanimously voted Thursday to make 988 the official three-digit suicide prevention hotline. The new emergency number will go live nationwide on July 16th, 2022.
Americans can currently reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) as well as through online chats.
The new ruling will require all phone service providers, including Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service providers, to direct calls to the new three-digit hotline to the suicide prevention Lifeline by July 16th, 2022. The Lifeline's current number will remain operational during and after this transition process.
FCC makes 988 the new suicide prevention hotline
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US. In 2018, more than 48,000 Americans died by suicide, with an estimated 1.4 million suicide attempts nationwide. Counselors at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline received over 2.2 million calls and 100,000 online chats in 2018. A three-digit number eases access to resources for people struggling with mental health issues.
"Establishing the easy-to-remember 988 as the '911' for suicide prevention and mental health services will make it easier for Americans in crisis to access the help they need and decrease the stigma surrounding suicide and mental health issues," the FCC said in a statement.
This change was originally proposed in August 2019, after President Trump signed the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act a year earlier. The legislation directed the FCC to study the effectiveness of the current Lifeline number and the feasibility of designating "a simple, easy-to-remember," three-digit hotline. The agency approved the 988 number last December, initiating the transition process.
The FCC commissioners have now unanimously voted to the proposed three-digit hotline official. The agency has given carriers two years of time to make the necessary changes.
"Some phone companies urged us to roll out 988 on a phased-in basis. But we believe that a uniform implementation date will minimize potentially deadly consumer confusion that could result from having 988 available in some, but not all, areas," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said.
FCC Commissioner bemoans the lack of texting provision
Replacing a 10-digit phone number with a three-digit hotline for contacting emergency services is always a welcome change. However, many people still aren't willing to talk about mental health issues in an open way.
They'd prefer to text rather than talk about it with someone. The FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworce fears that the new rules not including a texting provision may undermine the efforts.
"Right now, the FCC lacks a plan to incorporate the ability to text into the number we establish today. But as we confront the rise in suicide by teenagers across the country, we should acknowledge that texting is their primary form of communication," Jessica said.
"Voice service has its benefits, but it is not native for most young people. So I regret today’s decision is anchored in older technologies and takes a pass on developing texting capabilities with this three-digit hotline. We should have done so here. I sincerely hope we can do so in the future."