Dec 12, 2019 - Politics & Policy

FCC readies plan to make reaching suicide hotline faster and easier

Illustration of person dialing 988 on smartphone

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The Federal Communications Commission is expected to advance a proposal Thursday to let Americans reach a national suicide prevention hotline by dialing 988. The move comes amid widespread concern about the country's rising suicide rate.

The big picture: Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S., with more than 47,000 deaths by suicide in 2017. With this proposal, the FCC is aiming to make it easier to reach crisis services and reduce the stigma around suicide and mental health emergencies.

  • "One aspect of this will be the creation of normalcy," said Sam Brinton, head of advocacy and government affairs for The Trevor Project, which provides crisis intervention services to LGBTQ youth, including through its own independent hotline.
  • "We call 911 if we see an emergency or if we have one ourselves. We’ll be able to call 988 when we have a mental health emergency," Brinton said. "I think that is going to de-stigmatize the idea."

Details: FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's proposal asks for comment on establishing 988 as the three-digit number that would connect callers to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a hotline to a nationwide network of local crisis centers.

  • The federally funded Lifeline received more than 2 million calls in 2018. That's more than double the number of calls it got in 2012.
  • The FCC notes that there's some support for repurposing a number like 511 or 611, now used for traffic information and, in some places, reporting phone service troubles.
  • But the agency said it would be easier and faster to stand up an all-new number than reallocate one that's already heavily used.

Why it matters: The Trevor Project found that 96% of hotline callers, when contacted afterward, reported feeling a de-escalation of suicidal thoughts following their calls. The FCC's proposal says a 1% reduction in U.S. suicides would save 470 lives a year.

Yes, but: The FCC's proposal does not consider letting people text 988 to connect to the hotline — in part because the Lifeline doesn't currently support text-message communication.

  • The Trevor Project saw massive growth after expanding its own services to include text, Brinton said. "If you’re crying or you're emotional, maybe you don’t want to be talking on the phone. Maybe texting is an easier way to communicate with those trying to save your life."
  • Ashley Womble, head of communications at Crisis Text Line, notes that Crisis Text Line will connect anyone in the U.S. who texts 741741 with a crisis counselor.

What's next: The FCC will have to vote again to finalize the proceeding once it's done collecting comments. The agency projects an 18-month timeline for implementing the plan after that final vote.

Meanwhile, the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday approved legislation that would write the 988 designation into law and allow states to collect fees placed on residents' phone bills to support local crisis centers.

  • Additional funding is key for centers that are already understaffed and expect an increase in calls if the 988 number is implemented.
  • The bipartisan legislation, introduced by Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), and Jack Reed (D-RI), would also require the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to come up with a strategy to connect young LGBTQ hotline callers to specialized services.
  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline already connects veterans to specialized services.

Editor's note: This piece has been changed to reflect more sensitive wording to describe suicidal thoughts. Also, we've clarified that it's text messages that Lifeline does not support — there is a web-based chat option.

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