FCC wants to implement '988' as new suicide prevention hotline, similar to 911

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission wants to make the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline easier to reach with a new “988” number in place of the current 10-digit number, 800-273-TALK (8255).

A law passed last year required the FCC to study assigning a three-digit number for suicide prevention, like 911 for emergencies or 311 for city services. 

The FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau and Office of Economics and Analytics submitted a joint report to Congress on Wednesday. 

The FCC said in the report that there is "overwhelming support" for a three-digit number because it would be easier for Americans in crisis to access “potentially life-saving resources.”

“The Commission should initiate a rulemaking proceeding to consider designating 988 as the 3-digit code to be used for this purpose,” the report said. 

In the current national crisis hotline, callers are routed to one of 163 crisis centers. Counselors answered 2.2 million calls last year. 

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said he intends to start the monthslong process to make the three-digit number happen.

“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. I intend to move forward on this recommendation.

“In the meantime, my heart goes out to anyone facing a crisis. I hope they will contact 1-800-273-TALK for support today.”

Anything that makes it easier for people having suicidal thoughts — and their loved ones — to reach out for assistance is good, said Dr. Lynn Bufka, an associate executive director at the American Psychological Association. 

"There's no way most of them are going to remember the 800 numbers, 988 makes it much easier to remember," she said. 

The government's action comes as suicide rates have increased across the U.S. over the past two decades, and dramatically so — by more than 30 percent — in half of U.S. states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

There were 45,000 deaths in 2016.

In 2017, 47,173 people in the U.S. died by suicide, the 10th highest cause of death, while more than 1.4 million adults attempted suicide, the CDC said. 

The new, shorter number would likely lead to more calls, which in turn would mean more expenses for crisis centers already struggling to keep up. 

If the number of calls to the hotline doubled, centers would need an extra $50 million a year to handle the increase, the FCC said, citing the federal agency that funds the hotline, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

"These kinds of hotlines need to be well-supported and well-funded," Bufka said. "Let's make sure we've got the resources in place to really be able to respond.“

She cautioned that if someone in a moment of crisis called and couldn't get through to a counselor, that could add to the despair.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.