Will new three-digit Suicide Prevention Hotline lead to a surge in calls?

As you may have seen last week, the FCC voted to formally approve the regulatory process which would take the Suicide Prevention Hotline number (currently 1-800-273-8255) and turn it into a three-digit number, 9-8-8. It will take at least a year for the new line to go live.

For many reasons, this is a big deal in the suicide prevention world, and a wonderful development which will save lives. I can think of two reasons why this is so important off the top of my head. First is obvious: It’s an easy number to remember, like 911. Most people haven’t remembered the suicide prevention hotline number (I always have to Google it when I do blog entries like this, and I’m very in tune with the mental health world), and that’s an extra step. When someone is in crisis, you want to make it as easy as possible to get help. For the same reasons, means reductions matters when it comes to preventing suicide.

Second is the cultural statement: Suicide prevention matters. We all know 911 and understand the importance behind needing to call for help as soon as possible. With suicide numbers continuing to rise unabated, having a three digit number is a statement of priorities. It’s our way of saying, “Yes, this is important – really important. So important that we’re going to elevate the ease of getting help.”

But, that’s not to say that issues may not emerge as a result of this very significant and important change. As noted by this article from Pew Trusts, the new number will likely lead to a surge in calls. That’s good if it helps more people get help, but it can only help people get more help if the hotlines are prepared.

As noted by the article, there is not one massive hotline, per se, but a series of local hotlines, and many of them are “woefully underfunded.” Waiting periods and being bounced to a less local line are already occurrences which occur, and this surge in calls may make things worse. Furthermore, some states are in better shape then others. Six states (Georgia, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, New York and Utah) have made substantial investments and improvements in their suicide prevention hotlines, centralizing and standardizing systems while also expanding them. These states will be better prepared for the change over, but others may not.

What’s the solution here? The shift to 988 is great – but only if these lines are adequately funded. State and national governments have to expand funding, and they have to do it now. Pennsylvania and the rest of the nation have been utterly devastated by the opioid crisis which has taken more than 70,000 from us in 2017. As a result, we invested tens of millions of dollars in prevention and treatment. Suicide took 47,000 from us in the same time period, and hasn’t seen anywhere near the same levels of investment.

We need to invest the money here, too.

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