Policy

Suicide prevention hotline to get three-digit phone number

FCC chairman says he will move ahead following legislation, staff report

Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, plans to move ahead with establishing a three-digit suicide prevention hotline. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

It should soon be easier to call a suicide prevention hotline.

The Federal Communications Commission plans to move forward with establishing a three-digit number for the federally-backed hotline.

[Rep. Susan Wild honors late partner in a tearful floor speech]

Thursday’s announcement from FCC Chairman Ajit Pai signals the culmination of one of the final legislative priorities of former Senate President Pro Tempore Orrin G. Hatch of Utah.

Pai said that he intends to follow a staff recommendation for establishing a three-digit dialing code, likely to be 9-8-8, to reach the network of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, currently 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). That program is funded through the Health and Human Services Department.

“There is a suicide epidemic in this country, and it is disproportionately affecting at-risk populations, including our Veterans and LGBTQ youth,” Pai said in a statement. “Crisis call centers have been shown to save lives. This report recommends using a three-digit number to make it easier to access the critical suicide prevention and mental health services these call centers provide.”

The statement from the chairman came in conjunction with a report to Congress, which was transmitted on Wednesday to five committees with jurisdiction over telecommunications, health and veterans policy.

The FCC staff studied several options for the dialing code before going forward with proposing the 9-8-8 number, including repurposing of some of the existing three-digit codes that end with 1-1. The report also explains why directing suicide hotline calls through the existing 9-1-1 infrastructure could be unworkable.

“For example, calls to 911 average 2 minutes or less, and 911 call-takers focus on identifying the nature of the emergency and the caller’s location to enable prompt dispatch of appropriate emergency response. Thus, the 911 system is not well-suited to provide suicide prevention counseling or to respond to calls that can be handled through conversation with a trained mental health professional rather than dispatching first responders,” the report said.

Hatch is sure to welcome the news from the FCC, he had pushed the House to act on the Senate legislation following the deaths by suicide of both celebrity chef and television host Anthony Bourdain, and renowned designer Kate Spade, both in 2018.

“I believe that by making the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline system more user-friendly and accessible, we can save thousands of lives by helping people find the help they need when they need it most,” Hatch said at the time.

The House did pass the bill the next month, led by fellow Utah Republican Chris Stewart, and President Donald Trump signed it into law in August of 2018, setting the stage for Thursday’s announcement by the FCC.

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