December 18, 2019
by Kimberly Lucey
"988 has an echo of the 911 number we all know as an emergency number. And we believe that this 3-digit number, dedicated for this purpose, will help ease access to crisis services", says FCC chairman Ajit Pai. "It’ll reduce the stigma surrounding suicide and mental health conditions. And it’ll ultimately save lives."
The FCC recommended the use of a three-digit line in an August report. The five member commission moved the proposal forward in a unanimous vote Thursday, opening it up for public comment, and beginning the rulemaking process. It requires carriers to implement the 988 number within an 18-month timeframe.
Chairman Pai says the move is coming at an important time, citing a suicide rate in the United States at its highest level since World War II. "In 2017, more than 47,000 Americans died by suicide and more than 1.4 million adults attempted suicide", says Pai. "And this crisis is disproportionately affecting various at-risk populations. More than 20 Veterans die by suicide every day and more than half a million LGBTQ youth will attempt suicide this year alone. A shorter, simpler suicide hotline number could be a game-changer."
Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado has sponsored a bi-partisan bill in the Senate regarding the hotline number. He calls the action by the FCC an historic step, but says "it doesn't mean our work is over. Congress still has a major role to play in creating and supporting this hotline, and ensuring states have the flexibility to make it work."
His bill would also allow states to collect fees to make sure local call centers are able to handle an increased call volume. The FCC's report says the suicide hotline answered more than 2.2 million calls in 2018. They expect that number to double if a three-digit dialing code goes into effect, requiring $50 million per year for call centers to accommodate the volume.
The Senate Commerce Committee unanimously voted Wednesday to approve that bill. A companion bill has also been introduced in the House.
At this point, the FCC's proposal does not include an option to text the National Suicide Prevention Hotline for help. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel is urging the agency to look further into that, writing "texting is primary for so many young people. It would be a mistake for us to build a system that presumes talk is the only starting point for discussion." She says she's concerned excluding a provision for texting would cut off people who reach out "first and foremost through text."
The FCC says their notice of proposed rulemaking opens the case up for comment on all aspects of implementation. That includes whether carriers would need a longer or shorter timeframe than the proposed 18 months to make the 988 hotline number a reality.
About the Author
Kim Lucey is a freelance journalist with more than a decade of experience in the field. Her career has included coverage of big breaking news events like the Sandy Hook school shooting, lockdown in Watertown, MA following the Boston marathon bombings, and Superstorm Sandy. Her in-depth reports have garnered awards, including a focus on treating mental health issues in children. Currently, she is a reporter at a television station covering the news across the Greater Boston Area with an appreciation for fact-finding and storytelling. Follow Kim on Facebook and Twitter.