Future Tense

The FCC Chairman Wants to Make It Easier to Call the Suicide Hotline

A woman's hands, with beige nail polish and several rings, hold a smartphone.
Under a new plan, people experiencing a mental health crisis could call an equivalent of 911. Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash

There was a period in my life when I carried a small slip of paper in a pillbox in my bag. The paper bore 11 numbers, 1-800-273-8255, that would connect me with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. I hoped I’d never need them, and luckily I never did. But having them there, alongside a few ibuprofens and whatever medication I was taking, felt like a literal lifeline during a difficult time. If I needed them, they would be there.

Thanks to the Federal Communications Commission, others struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts might not need that scrap of paper. Calling the suicide hotline could become as easy as dialing 988.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced the proposal Tuesday, setting in motion a process that could formally designate the easy-to-remember three digits as the nationwide suicide hotline. The commission will vote on the plan in December and, if it passes, put it up for public comment.

Making it as easy to call for help during a mental health crisis as dialing 911 in any other emergency is a great idea. It will reduce a barrier for people to reach out when they’re struggling. And research has shown that these types of interventions work. In a 2007 study, suicidal individuals who were able to connect with crisis services reported decreases in suicidality over the course of their conversations as well as decreases in “hopelessness and psychological pain in the following weeks.” As Pai notes, the U.S. suicide rate is currently at its highest level since World War II. Suicide is the country’s 10th leading cause of death, with an average of 129 suicides per day, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Connecting more people with these resources could have a huge impact on this devastating epidemic.

Of course, with more people able to reach out, the hotline, which answered more than 2.2 million calls and about 100,000 online chats in 2018, will need to be prepared for a bigger load. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which runs the hotline, has endorsed the FCC’s proposal, but a spokesman acknowledged that “we would need to have the sustained resources to make this update a reality.” SAMHSA will undoubtedly need increased funding to keep the hotline’s 163 crisis centers staffed and ready for the likely surge in calls. Otherwise, wait times could spike, and some callers might not get the help they need. Furthermore, telephoning a hotline is often just a first step in a very long process of recovery. In the wake of Kate Spade’s suicide in 2018, Susan Matthews wrote for Slate about how frustrating it can be to see public figures share suicide hotline numbers as though they are some magical solution: “[A] crisis hotline is just one part of the support system that ought to exist for anyone dealing with mental health issues.” Those answering the phone need to be able to point callers to resources. We need more funding for ongoing psychiatric care, counseling, and other mental health services to truly tackle this epidemic.

That said, it’s amazing to see the FCC stepping up and collaborating with mental health experts to get this done. The National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act, passed in 2018, required the FCC to work with SAMHSA and the Department of Veterans Affairs to study whether a three-digit code would be feasible and report their findings to Congress, which they did back in August. But the bill didn’t include any funding to achieve the goal. Seeing the FCC nevertheless follow through with and embrace this mission reminds us that all facets of the government can contribute to efforts to address the mental health crisis. Other departments, agencies, and commissions would do well to look at their own missions and see what they can do within their power to help.

In the private sector, we’ve seen the clever innovations that tech companies and artificial intelligence can deliver to suicide prevention. Crisis Text Line, a nonprofit for which I volunteer, has used the vast amounts of data it’s collected (anonymously) on texters over the past six years to develop an algorithm that helps triage texts during busy times to flag people at severe risk of suicide. Facebook, too, is using machine learning to find key words and phrases most likely to signal imminent suicide risk and help connect those users with appropriate resources. I’d love to see all agencies of the federal government firing away at this problem with the same sense of innovation and interest.

That paper I had with the hotline’s number on it grew ragged and worn over time, collecting dust and fraying at the edges. I threw it out years ago. I’m excited to think that in the future no one would need such a thing. Their lifeline would be three easy numbers away.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.