New National Number 9-8-8 Is in the Works for a Simpler Way to Reach a Suicide Prevention Hotline

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Federal regulators are setting up a new three-digit number (9-8-8) to reach a suicide prevention hotline to allow an easier way to seek help and reduce the stigma associated with mental health.

Once 9-8-8 implemented, people will just need to dial 988, similar to calling 911 for emergencies or 311 for city services, in order to call for help. Currently, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline uses a 10-digit number, 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255). Callers are routed to one of 163 crisis centers, where counselors answered 2.2 million calls in 2018.

“The three-digit number is really going to be a breakthrough in terms of reaching people in a crisis. No one is embarrassed to call 911 for a fire or an emergency. No one should be embarrassed to call 988 for a mental health emergency.”

— Dwight Holton, CEO of Lines for Life (a suicide prevention nonprofit)

Suicide rates have increased by over 30 percent in the United States during the past two decades, according to a CDC report “Suicide rising across the US.” The CDC report published that from 1999 to 2016, suicide increased in every state except Nevada, where there was a decrease of 1 percent. In half of U.S. states, the increase was more than 30 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Illinois increased 22.8 percent. The highest increase was 57.6 percent in North Dakota.

Factors contribute to suicide among those with and without mental health conditions

Relationship problem (42%)

Problematic substance use (28%)

Crisis in the past or upcoming two weeks (29%)

Criminal legal problem (9%)

Physical health problem (22%)

Loss of housing (4%)

Job/Financial problem (16%)

There were 45,000 suicide deaths in 2016, the most recent year stats were available. The CDC report also published that suicide rates are higher with at-risk populations, including veterans and the LGBTQ community.

A law enacted in 2018 required the Federal Communications Commission to study the assignment of a three-digit number for suicide prevention. The FCC said in a report that there is overwhelming support for a three-digit number because it would be easier for distressed people to get help.

A vote on Thursday December 12, 2019 starts the months-long process to make that happen. The next step is a comment period before the FCC moves to an order.

“More than 20 veterans die by suicide every day and more than half a million LGBTQ youth will attempt suicide this year alone. A shorter, simpler suicide hotline number could be a game-changer.”

— FCC Chairman Ajit Pai

The FCC determined that it would be better to have a new number that’s dedicated to the suicide hotline, rather than using a number that’s currently used for other purposes, such as 911. Advocates say that having a dedicated number, along with a message that mental health is of equivalent importance as medical emergencies, could help reduce the stigma of calling the number.

Dwight Holton, said that while the increase in calls might cost more, it saves money in the long run because more people will be calling 988 instead of 911, which involves sending first responders and costs thousands of dollars. Holton added that having first responders present doesn’t always help people in crisis because they aren’t necessarily trained to deal with mental health issues.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, said people making calls because of suicidal thoughts can often be helped just by talking them through it, without needing to send a first responder.

Although 988 won’t receive text messages, there are other texting services available. Lines for Life offers a text service by texting 273TALK to 839863.

Know the 12 Suicide WARNING SIGNS
Feeling like a burden
Being isolated
Increased anxiety
Feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
Increased substance use
Looking for a way to access lethal means
Increased anger or rage
Extreme mood swings
Expressing hopelessness
Sleeping too little or too much
Talking or posting about wanting to die
Making plans for suicide

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit for additional resources.

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