Suicide: The New Number to Call: 988

FCC suggests new suicide prevention hotline

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

A rising from the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act of 2018, the Federal Communications Commission in August proposed a national three-digit hotline — 988 — for people contemplating suicide.

The government studied the feasibility of a three-digit number to mimic the 911 general emergency number and replace the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number, 1-800-273-TALK or 1-800-273-8255. Struggling to remember the long number during a mental health crisis may be limiting some people from calling it.

The bill has been already approved but no timetable has been set up for launching 988.

Melanie Funchess, director of community engagement at Mental Health Association in Rochester, said that since 911 is used for any type of emergency — and sometimes not-so-urgent issues — a dedicated short number for suicide can facilitate better care.

“Oftentimes, people need someone to talk with,” Funchess said. “If they feel heard and understood, that can get someone through the day.”

The operators would possess training in this specific crisis and know if the case needs referral to emergency care or if follow-up with a therapist would suffice.

Funchess likes that the proposed number would add yet another way for those suffering to obtain professional help, in addition to the longer number and the 741741 text line that is continually staffed.

“A lot of young people may not want to talk on the phone,” she said. “Those people are really good. All the things we have are good as long as they’re resourced in a way that allows them to operate effectively. I’m really excited because [the proposed number] gives people somewhere to call. People may not want to call a friend. They say that their friend won’t understand or will judge them. There’s something about talking with a ‘stranger.’”

Family members and friends tend to make statements such as, “That’s a terrible thing to say” or dismiss their thoughts and feelings instead of simply listening.

A new number could help deal with the recent increased volume of calls to 911 call centers. The National Center for Health Statistics states that from 2000 to 2016, the rates of suicides increased by 50% among females and 21% among males.

Missy Stolfi is area director for American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in Western New York and Central New York, a group that covers 27 counties in Upstate New York. She believes that with the 988 number, “we can accommodate the volume and have the most appropriate intervention. A mental health crisis needs to be handled differently than a physical health crisis. The 911 system is already strained as a resource.”

Like Funchess, she views the new number as a way to open access to help. The new number would replace the longer number. It would not require replacing call center employees, but Stolfi hopes for adequate funding to centers as the volume of calls would likely continue to increase.

She wants the old number to forward people directly to operators at call centers.

“We wouldn’t want anyone to call the old number and get a pre-recorded message that this number has been disconnected,” Stolfi said.