FCC approves 9-8-8 to be 3-digit number for national suicide hotline starting in 2022

At its July open meeting on July 16, 2020, the Federal Communications Commission's five leaders unanimously voted to finalize 9-8-8 as the three-digit number Americans can dial and be directed to the 24/7 national suicide hotline. By Veronica Stracqualursi, CNN

(CNN) -- In two years, individuals in suicidal crisis seeking help will have a number that's easy to remember and quick to dial to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

At its July open meeting Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission's five leaders unanimously voted to finalize 9-8-8 as the three-digit number Americans can dial and be directed to the 24/7 national hotline.

Callers currently reach the hotline by phoning the 10-digit number: 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).

But with the FCC's vote to adopt a final rule Thursday, phone service providers will begin the transition process to implement the 988 number nationwide by July 16, 2022.

Even after 988 is active, callers will still be able to reach the hotline through the original 10-digit number.

FCC chairman Ajit Pai and advocates believe the three-digit number will save more lives, saying that it has the echoes of 911.

And in the way that the concept for 911 was spurred by societal changes, the push for a three-digit number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline comes as suicide is a growing public health problem.

Americans are currently dealing with several crises -- including the coronavirus pandemic, an economic downturn tied to the pandemic, civil unrest over police brutality -- that can cause distress and anxiety and contribute to suicide.

Since 2008, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It has become the second leading cause of death for Americans ages 10-34.

America's suicide rates are at the highest level since World War II, with an increase of 33% from 1999 to 2017 alone, according to the CDC.

Suicide rates are highest among Native American and White populations and higher in rural areas than urban. Military veterans and LGBTQ youth are disproportionately impacted by suicide.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline was launched in 2005 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), which falls under the US Health and Human Services Department, and Vibrant Emotional Health, a mental health nonprofit.

Calls to the hotline are routed to the nearest crisis center out of a network of 150 centers nationwide.

In 2018, trained counselors answered more than 2.2 million calls and more than 100,000 online chats, according to SAMHSA.

Calls to the hotline more than doubled over a five-year period, from fewer than one million in 2012 to more than two million in 2017, the FCC reported.

The effort to implement 988 has bipartisan support. In 2018, Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed into law legislation that directed the FCC to study the use of a three-digit dialing code for the hotline.

The FCC's staff recommended the number 988 over other options, and in December, the federal agency's commissioners unanimously approved the three-digit number for the hotline, kicking off the rulemaking process.

Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado previously said that Congress has a "major role" in supporting the hotline and "ensuring that states have the flexibility to make it work," but efforts have since stalled.

The Senate in May passed a bill Gardner sponsored that would designate 988 as the three-digit number for the hotline and authorize states to collect fees aimed at ensuring that local crisis centers will be able to support increased call volume. The bill was wrapped into Democrats' coronavirus relief package, the HEROES Act, which the House approved in mid-May. The relief package, however, is not expected to go anywhere in the Republican-controlled Senate.

To get help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). There is also a crisis text line. For crisis support in Spanish, call 1-888-628-9454.

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2018 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

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