Congress passes the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act

Rise in suicide rates prompts creation of three digit emergency number for crisis center hotlines

Samantha Margot, Features Editor

Originally published January 24. 2020

As of December 2019, Congress broke conventional party lines and passed the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act with bipartisan support. As of next summer, the Federal Communications Committee will have implemented a three digit number for mental health support nationally. 

Currently the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline uses a twelve digit number (1-800-273-TALK) that reroutes the caller to one of the 170 call centers in the United States, where councelors spoke to 2.2 million callers in 2018. Over the next 18 months, all cell phone providers will have accommodated 988 as the official number for mental health support. 

Senior Ava Lim advocates for the de-stigmatization of mental health support, and has been following the progression of the bill through Congress. “The idea is to reduce the stigma around calling for mental health support and increase the number of people helped as suicide rates continue to rise,” Lim said. “Just like kids are taught that if there is an emergency to call 911, 988 will create a standardized and de-stigmatized way to reach mental health help in an emergency.”

The number will not direct people to a new resource center, rather it is an easy to remember number to replace the previous twelve digits. The new plan is looking to increase the number of calls to the crisis centers and reduce the amount of people fatally affected.

Dwight Holten, the former Oregon U.S. Attorney, is the current CEO of Lines for Life, a non-profit advocating for suicide and substance abuse prevention. In a public appearance, Holten was quoted saying: “The three-digit number is really going to be a breakthrough in terms of reaching people in a crisis. No one is embarrassed to call 911 for a fire or an emergency. No one should be embarrassed to call 988 for a mental health emergency.

Since 2005, the number of calls to the NSPL has risen by more than 12,000,000 calls a year. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in people ages 10 to 24, something that has increased by 54 percent since 2007, and in 2017 alone there were over 1.4 million attempts of adult suicide. 

With the increased calls to crisis centers around the nation, the costs of handling this new number will increase drastically. The FCC has estimated that the first year will cost $570 million dollars, while the second year will boil down to $175 million. Around $300 million of the money will come from replacing equipment to handle the 988 code, even still, calls save lives.

Crisis Text Line provides free, 24/7, confidential support via text message to people in crisis when they dial 741741. National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255