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FCC backs designating 988 as suicide prevention hotline


A Federal Communications Commission report recommends that 988 be designated as a nationwide suicide and mental health crisis support hotline, because a three-digit number “could be more effective” than the current 10-digit number, according to an FCC release.

The report was prepared by the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau and Office of Economics and Analytics at the direction of the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act of 2018. The current service, known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, uses the 10-digit number of 800-273-8255 (TALK). The report noted that the hotline has proved effective: The service answered 2.2 million calls in 2018 and various assessments have shown significant reductions in hopelessness and suicidal ideation among callers.

However, based on data and conclusions from some of those assessments, the report determined “that the Lifeline could be more effective in preventing suicides and providing crisis intervention if it were accessible via a simple, easy-to-remember, 3-digit dialing code.” The report examined the feasibility of three-digit options, including N11 options such as 211 and 511, but based on an analysis by the North American Numbering Council, it found that “technical and operational concerns related to the 988 code could be more easily and quickly addressed and resolved than any re-education efforts related to repurposing a N11 code.”

Suicide and mental health crises have been on the rise, according to numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited by the FCC report. Among the 50 states, 49 saw increases during 1999-2016, and more than half saw increases greater than 20%. The report describes how some groups, such as veterans and LGBTQ youth, are at especially high risk: More than 6,000 veterans each year died by suicide during 2008-2016, and LGBTQ youth are almost three times as likely as are heterosexual youth to contemplate suicide, with more than 500,000 expected to attempt suicide this year.

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