Suicide Prevention Hotline appears set to get a three digit number

Some ridiculously good news out of the federal government (yes, really) when it comes to mental health:

The Federal Communications Commission plans to move forward with establishing a three-digit number for the federally-backed hotline.

Thursday’s announcement from FCC Chairman Ajit Pai signals the culmination of one of the final legislative priorities of former Senate President Pro Tempore Orrin G. Hatch of Utah.

Pai said that he intends to follow a staff recommendation for establishing a three-digit dialing code, likely to be 9-8-8, to reach the network of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, currently 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). That program is funded through the Health and Human Services Department.

Why is this so important? Two things.

First is the obvious: It makes it easier for people to get the help that they need. A 1-800 number – even one with “TALK” in it – can be too easy to forget. The Suicide Prevention Hotline is a critical resource for people who are in crisis. Elevating that number, and making it easier for people to call, can help to direct people to the care that they need. This is particularly important for someone who is in a state of mind where suicide seems to be an option. A 1-800 number may be too difficult to dial. A three digit number – one like 911, which has been drilled into our brains since we were kids – is easier.

This is even more important because of the frequent conversations around suicide prevention whenever there is a high-level suicide. In the aftermath of one of these tragedies, there is often an increased effort to make people aware of this number. Think about it. How many times have you heard someone say words to the effect of, “You’re never alone. If you or someone you love is in crisis, call 1-800-273-TALK.”

Let’s keep in mind that this number is a national resource, and the volume of calls it receives is reflective of that. The national hotline will actually route your call to the nearest available center. For information on how many calls your state hotlines received, you can check out this report, which has statistics from July 2018- December 2018. For example, during this period, there were 30,346 calls made from Pennsylvania residents. For added context: In a three month period, .0023% of the state’s 12,810,000 residents called. Folks, that’s not a small number.

Second, and maybe more importantly: This decision elevates the national conversation about suicide prevention. Only important causes get three digit numbers: Emergency services (911), directory assistance (411) and local services (211) are the only ones in Pennsylvania. Making suicide prevention a three digit number will help to push suicide prevention to the top of the public agenda, and this is something we absolutely, desperately need to do. This is a good decision, and I cannot wait to see it finalized.

Any thoughts you want to add? Let us know in the comments below!


2 thoughts on “Suicide Prevention Hotline appears set to get a three digit number

  1. I’m really overjoyed to hear about this. I have never had to personally call the good folks there, but I’ve turned many people to it. Every second matters in critical situations and even the time it takes to find the number can be crucial. Like you said- I knew 911 long before I knew how to count. Imagine how far it would go to make people aware of 988 and suicide prevention. When someone is critically injured, (although this isnt the correct crisis response), the words “Somebody call 911!” are bound to be uttered. Applying that, although the dramatics might be non-existent here, our brains will play that same message. A whole generation of children and adults alike can be taught that their struggle is valid but that suicide is never the answer.

    Additionally, I appreciate the choice of 988. On the phone, it would be hard to cross dial 911 for 988 and vice versa, but by starting it with 9 we almost instantly create a link in our brain- “9 means danger, crisis, with an assured response of help and safety.”

    Lastly, I’d like to thank you for all of your posts. I am a senior at Cedar Crest this coming fall and mental health has been the number one problem I have to address this semester. I keep considering, “No, it can wait” but your posts are reminding me that waiting can be fatal. I’m not sure when you will be back on our campus, but I always enjoy your visits! Thank you for not only being an upstanding representative, but not being ashamed of who you are and being the cultural representation in media and politics that is necessary for your constituents to fully realize their own potential and worth.


    1. Hi, Maxine! Welcome to the blog and thanks for the comment. You are exactly right with your assessment about 911! That’s why it’s so important. And I hadn’t thought of that 911-988 connection.

      Also, thanks for the kind words…I’m glad that what I’m writing can be helpful. That’s legitimately why I’m doing this. And not for nothing but I will always have a soft spot for Cedar Crest girls – my wife is an alum from there, twice over!

      I hope to see you in the future!


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