Vote Thursday on push to make suicide crisis line a 3-digit call

Published: Jul. 13, 2020 at 3:02 PM EDT
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According to the CDC, suicide is among the top 10 leading causes of death in the United States, affecting every demographic and socioeconomic group. A new proposal being voted on this Thursday would make dialing a life-saving hotline as simple as calling 911.

Shelby Rowe was the director of a suicide crisis center 10 years ago when she tried to take her own life. She says the experience made her realize how hard it can be to ask for help in that paralyzing moment.

"It's like telling someone in a tsunami if only they could swim better, maybe they would have survived. Like, it doesn't matter if you're Michael Phelps, you're not swimming yourself out of a tsunami. Like, we need help," Rowe said.

That help often comes in the form of reaching out to a loved one or calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. It's currently a 10-digit number (800-273-8255). A proposal from the Federal Communications Commission would make it just three digits. Dialing 988 would instantly connect callers with trained counselors at local crisis centers.

"It's a game-changer. And I think it's intuitive for most people that now when you dial an emergency, every child knows that number, 911, of course, that's what you dial," said Ajit Pai, the chair of the FCC.

Suicide rates in the U.S. have risen in the past two decades. Last year, Lifeline connected 2.1 million calls to crisis centers.

According to the CDC, more than 48,000 people died by suicide in the U.S. in 2018, and there was a 35% increase in the rate of suicides from 1999 to 2018.

Bob Gebbia is the president of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and says there are multiple factors behind the rise.

"There's generally an underlying mental health condition-- anxiety, depression, substance use-- with a combination of life events and stressors that, for many, can become overwhelming," Gebbia said.

Rowe is now a suicide prevention manager in Oklahoma and says she supports removing any barriers to getting help.

"Having a really easy to remember three-digit number, it's gonna help save lives," she said.

Experts say the three-digit hotline also emphasizes that mental health crises are just as critical as other emergencies.

If the FCC vote passes on Thursday, the three-digit hotline would be available in two years, giving the telecom industry time to comply and reconfigure networks.

Officials also expect that as 988 is implemented, call volume will increase. There are two bills in Congress that would fund the hotline and support crisis centers.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255, is available right now, 24 hours a day.