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.

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!