Ajit Pai

Ajit Pai

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai today proposed to begin a rulemaking to establish 988 as a new, nationwide, three-digit phone number for a suicide prevention and mental health hotline. The Commission will vote on this proposal at its December 12 public meeting.

“The suicide rate in the United States is at its highest level since World War II, and designating 988 as the suicide prevention and mental health hotline would be a major boost for our nation’s suicide prevention efforts,” said Chairman Pai at an event today with federal agency partners and national leaders in preventing suicide and helping at-risk communities.  “When it comes to saving lives, time is of the essence, and we believe that 988 can be activated more quickly than other possible three-digit codes.  In addition, 988 has an echo of the 911 number we all know as an emergency number.  Awareness of this resource—including how memorable the number is—should make a real difference in saving lives.”

The Chairman’s proposal would designate 988 as the national 3-digit code.  It would also require that all phone companies transmit all calls to 988 to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which today provides suicide prevention assistance at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) and through online chats.  The Lifeline is a national network of 163 crisis centers that is funded by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).  Calls to the Lifeline are routed from anywhere in the United States to the closest certified crisis center.  In 2018, trained Lifeline counselors answered over 2.2 million calls and over 100,000 online chats.

The National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act of 2018 directed the FCC, in consultation with the SAMHSA, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the North American Numbering Council, to study the feasibility of using a simple, easy-to-remember 3-digit number for a national suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline system.  In August, the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau and Office of Economics and Analytics sent this report to Congress, recommending 988 as the new 3-digit dialing code and finding that such a 3-digit number “would likely make it easier for Americans in crisis to access potentially life-saving resources.”

If the proposed Notice of Proposed Rulemaking is adopted by a vote of the full Commission at its December 12 Open Commission Meeting, the Commission will begin taking public comment on the proposal.  Following review of that public record, the Commission will decide whether and how to proceed with final rules to formally designate 988 as the nationwide phone number for suicide prevention and mental health support.

A portion of the remarks made today by Chairman Pai:

Fact one: suicide and mental health disorders are on the rise in America and have reached historic levels. 
Suicide rates in the United States are at their highest levels since World War II.  In 2017, more than 47,000 Americans died by suicide.  That represents a 33% increase since 1999.  And more than 1.4 million adults attempted suicide. This crisis is disproportionately affecting at-risk populations.  More than 20 Veterans die by suicide every day.  Between 2008 and 2016, there were more than 6,000 Veteran suicides each year. Perhaps the most disturbing trends involve young people.  More than one in 10 young adults report having suicidal thoughts, a 47% increase since 2009.  Suicide is the second-leading cause of death on college campuses.  And LGBTQ youth contemplate suicide at a rate almost three times higher than heterosexual youth.  More than half a million LGBTQ youth will attempt suicide this year alone.

Fact two: suicide is preventable. 
Suicidal thoughts don’t inevitably lead to suicide.  Help is available, and it can be effective.  When people get assistance, they are less likely to die by suicide.  In one review of 550 suicidal individuals who reached out to Lifeline crisis centers, 95% of callers reported that the call helped stop them from killing themselves.  Nearly 80% of these same callers said that follow-up contacts six to twelve weeks later had a positive impact, giving them hope and making them feel cared about.

Fact three: when we make it easier for people in need to seek help, many will do so. 
Here’s just one example.  In 2017, the rapper Logic released a song about suicide.  It had an unusual title, but one familiar to people in this room: 1-800-273-8255.  For those who don’t know, that’s the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.  The song struck a chord with audiences and has been streamed over 1.5 billion times across various platforms.  More important, in the three weeks following the song’s release, there was a 27% increase in the number of calls to the Lifeline.  Think about that.  If one pop song can significantly move the needle, just imagine how many more people could get the help they need if there were an easy-to-remember 3-digit number for emergency suicide prevention and mental health services.

There could be.  There should be.  And I’m here to announce that, should I get the support of a majority of my FCC colleagues, there will be.