It's a lesson you learn as early as grade school: If you find yourself injured, threatened or otherwise in harm's way, just break out your phone and dial a simple, three-digit number: 911. After more than five decades, the 911 emergency call system has become so memorable and ubiquitously known, it even has its own network TV adaptation.
But what if the danger is rooted less in the physical, and more in one's mental health?
On Thursday the Federal Communications Commission unanimously voted to proceed with a proposal to set up a new hotline similar to 911 — only, instead of dialing the police, the number would connect callers to experts in suicide prevention and mental health. The proposed number, 988, would link callers to an already existing network of crisis centers around the country set up by the Department of Health and Human Services.
That network, comprised of 163 such call centers around the country, is already accessible at 1-800-273-TALK or online right here. But the simplified alternative laid out Thursday would, in the words of an FCC report published in August, "make it easier for Americans in crisis to access potentially life-saving resources."
"Overall, the record supports the use of a dedicated 3-digit dialing code as a way to increase the effectiveness of suicide prevention efforts, ease access to crisis services, and reduce the stigma surrounding suicide and mental health conditions," the federal agency explained in the study, prepared in collaboration with HHS' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA.
Congress requested the report as part of the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act, passed and signed into law last year in a rare display of bipartisan agreement.
Thursday's FCC vote does not mean you can dial 988 today and be connected with the suicide prevention hotline. The move simply represents a major step forward in the process, opening a period of public comment on the proposal before the commission reaches the stage of finalizing the rules.
The notice proposes an 18-month time frame for making the number a reality.
"Our hearts go out to those who are struggling," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a recorded statement released Thursday, "and we hope to move as quickly as we can in order to help them get the help they need and deserve."
Pai pointed to some alarming statistics, noting that the U.S. recently has seen its highest rates of suicide since World War II. To wit:
- "More than 47,000 Americans died by suicide and more than 1.4 million adults attempted suicide" in 2017, according to SAMHSA.
- In a span of less than two decades, 1999 to 2017, the age-adjusted suicide rate rose about 33%, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this year.
- At-risk populations such as veterans, LGBTQ youth and American Indians have been shown to be particularly vulnerable.
- Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people aged 10 to 24, who saw a stark 56% rise in suicide rates from 2007 to 2017.
- Overall, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S.
The FCC says that last year alone, counselors at the 163 crisis centers around the country answered more than 2.2 million calls and more than 100,000 online chats. SAMHSA says its research shows that "callers were significantly more likely to feel less depressed, less suicidal, less overwhelmed, and more hopeful" by the end of their calls with counselors.
Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., on Thursday applauded the commission's vote as a "historic action" toward boosting access to these kinds of services.
He and a bipartisan group of his colleagues introduced a bill in the Senate in October that would pursue the same aim of setting up 988 as a suicide prevention hotline. The National Suicide Hotline Designation Act would also allow states to collect fees to support the plan's implementation.
On Wednesday it received the approval of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which sent it along to the wider chamber for further consideration.