Three-Digit Suicide Prevention Hotline Will Be A Reality — In Two More Years

Courtesy of Ellis Arnold/Colorado Community Media
About 1,000 stand behind the organizers of the Out of the Darkness suicide-prevention walk April 14 on the Arapahoe High School campus. In front, left to right, stand Melissa Hughes, a volunteer with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and Brooke and Ry, Arapahoe students.

The FCC is moving ahead to set up a national three-digit suicide prevention hotline number: 988.

The commission voted unanimously today on rules that would require all phone service providers to direct 988 calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by July 16, 2022.

“Establishing the easy-to-remember 988 as the 911 for suicide prevention and mental healh services will make it easier for Americans in crisis to accses the help that they need," said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai at the meeting, who has been pushing this measure since last December.

“When more Americans receive those services, we know more lives will be saved,” Pai said.

Several suicide prevention groups applauded the new rules, saying that not having to look up or memorize a 10 digit phone number, will increase the number of people who seek help. 

“For those experiencing a behavioral health crisis, timely care can save lives,” said Robert Werthwein, director of the Colorado Department of Human Services, Office of Behavioral Health. “We look forward to conversations on 988 implementation with our federal and state partners.”

At least one commissioner didn’t think the new rules go far enough or take into account how people use current technology. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworce argued the FCC should be “more ambitious” and include texting capabilities to 988.

“As we confront the rise in suicide by teenagers across the country, we should acknowledge that texting is their primary form of communication. Voice service has its benefits, but it’s not native for most young people,” she said.

As the FCC starts setting up the number, a congressional push to do the same has stalled.

Sen. Cory Gardner sponsored a bill establishing 988 as the national three-digit help number last year. His bill, which includes additional funding for the 988 number to help local crisis centers handle the expected increase in calls, passed the Senate in May. Garder said the FCC step brings the hotline number closer to reality and urged the House to take up the measure.

“This bill passed unanimously in the U.S. Senate and was endorsed by all five FCC commissioners,” Gardner said in a statement. “In a crisis there should be no confusion about where to call, which is why 9-8-8 is so important. Delaying this bipartisan legislation any longer could cost lives.”

The House has not taken up the stand-alone bill, but it did pass a similar measure as part of the Heroes Act, Democrats’ most recent coronavirus package, in May. The Senate has not taken up that measure.

If you are in crisis, or are looking for mental health services for you or someone you know, call the Colorado Crisis Services hotline. Call 1-844-493-8255 or text “TALK” to 38255 to speak with a trained counselor or professional. Counselors are also available at walk-in locations or online to chat between 4 p.m. and 12 a.m.