FCC looks at making 988 a nationwide suicide prevention number

Ajit Pai
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai has proposed a new three-digit national hotline for emergency suicide prevention. (Courtesy AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

The Federal Communications Commission could make 988 a new nationwide number for a suicide prevention and mental health hotline.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai presented the proposal Tuesday night at the National Council of Behavioral Health in D.C. Besides designating a new national three-digit code, the proposal would require phone companies to forward 988 calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. In 2018, trained Lifeline counselors answered more than 2.2 million calls and 100,000 online chats.

“Suicide rates in the United States are at their highest levels since World War II,” said Pai. In 2017, more than 1.4 million adults attempted suicide and 47,000 Americans died from suicide, a 33% increase since 1999.

“When it comes to saving lives, time is of the essence, and we believe that 988 can be activated more quickly than other possible three-digit codes,” said Pai. The code’s similarity to the emergency number 911 would make it that much more memorable, he said, and make “a real difference in saving lives.”

The current number for the Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). Pai mentioned the song “1-800-273-8255” by the rapper Logic, which spurred a 27% increase in calls to the Lifeline upon its 2017 release.

“If one pop song can significantly move the needle,” Pai said, “just imagine how many more people could get the help they need if there were an easy-to-remember three-digit number for emergency suicide prevention and mental health services.”

The FCC plans to vote on the proposal Dec. 12; after that, a public comment period will begin.

“Suicide is preventable.” said Pai. “When we make it easier for people in need to seek help, many will do so.”

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