FCC approves 988 as national suicide prevention texting hotline

Brittany A. Roston - Nov 19, 2021, 6:39pm CST
FCC approves 988 as national suicide prevention texting hotline

The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) has approved a new way for those in need to access the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Starting next year, anyone in the US will be able to text the number 988 to be routed to the suicide prevention hotline, enabling text-based communication with a crisis counselor.

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The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a free hotline that anyone in the US can call to receive mental health support from a crisis counselor. The Lifeline is available by dialing the number 1-800-273-8255 (TALK), and starting by next summer, it’ll also be available by texting the number 988.

Once support for the number routing is in place, texting 988 will connect the individual with a crisis counselor for support. The FCC points out multiple benefits associated with this new plan, including an increased sense of anonymity for those who don’t feel comfortable speaking with a stranger, as well as better access for those who have certain disabilities.

With the approval out of the way, text message providers have been given a deadline of July 16, 2022, to implement the change so texts to 988 are routed to the Lifeline. Texts sent to that number will be routed to the hotline’s regular TALK line, which individuals in need must call until the transition to text-based support is finished.

Individuals who would rather communicate with a crisis counselor in a text-based format have the option of online chats (via Lifeline). There’s a separate number for the Veterans Crisis Line (1-800-273-8255). As part of its announcement, the FCC said it’ll let its federal partners decide whether the 988 crisis number should be set up to direct relevant texts to the Veterans Crisis Line’s own texting service.

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The suicide prevention hotline is an important public health service, particularly for disadvantaged communities that face particularly high suicide risk and fewer resources for seeking help. The FCC said as part of its announcement that 44,834 suicides were reported in 2020, a startling figure compounded by the increased mental health issues many have reported as a direct consequence of the pandemic (via CDC).

According to the CDC’s WISQARS Leading Causes of Death report, more than 47,500 people took their lives by suicide in 2019, making it the 10th leading cause of death in the nation. The figure was highest for the 10 to 34 age group, which had suicide as the second leading cause of death.

With the suicide rate considerably higher than the nation’s homicide rate, according to the CDC’s report, important steps are necessary to address the public health concern. Fixing the problem requires more than any single method, however, as detailed in the agency’s “Preventing Suicide: A Technical Package of Policy, Programs, and Practices.”

Improving access to suicide care services is listed as one of the strategies that may help address the nation’s suicide crisis. While the Lifeline provides one element of access to support, it is intended for those who are in a state of crisis. The report lists other ways preventative access can be expanded, including increasing support in underserved regions and adding mental health coverage to health insurance plans.

Beyond the improved access to the suicide prevention hotline, adding text-based support may encourage more individuals — particularly those in the young age group with the highest suicide risk — to seek support from these crisis counselors.

In 2019, Avochato published the results of a commissioned survey that found the majority of consumers in the US prefer messaging with businesses rather than calling. The preference was seen across a variety of industries, including preferences for text-based appointment scheduling, payment reminders, update messages, and more.

The Pew Research Center has been publishing data on cell phone use and texting habits among Americans for years, highlighting some of the reasons younger individuals prefer texting over voice calls — not only is it more convenient at times, but it can also be done more privately by preventing others from listening in, for example.

Whether the addition of a text-based support hotline will increase the use of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is unclear at this time. The government has increasingly expanded support for text-based communications among public health services, however. The FCC has been encouraging emergency call centers to add 911 texting support for several years, for example, though this ability is still limited to certain regions.

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