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New Suicide Prevention Hotline: 988?

Would a three digit federal number for the suicide prevention hotline increase calls and thus help tackle the issue of suicide? This was the question at hand last week when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), sent a report to Congress proposing the idea. It was stated that “would likely make it easier for Americans in crisis to access potentially life-saving resources.”

There are many thoughts on this implementation, the whole idea is that with a short number that addresses suicide as an emergency like calling 911 or 311 for city services, more people will know of the resource and be able to call in moments in which they feel like they need it. In the mental health advocacy world, it is true, a suicide attempt can lead to a death and should be treated as an emergency. However, of course this switch has benefits and consequences, from cost, to increase in calls, to fears and hopefulness.

Before diving into what could come of this switch, let’s talk about why it happened. As discussed in last week’s blog, every community is dealing with political, economic, and social pressures that have increased mental illness and sometimes suicide attempts. Many minority groups are faced with much higher suicide rates than others. However, this change is brought into light because of a general increase in suicide rates, with a 33% increase since 1999, according to the US Centers for Disease and Control.

Minority rates:

  • American Indians and Alaskan Natives have the highest rate out of any group with 22.15 in every 100,000

  • While non-Hispanic whites are 17.83 per every 100,000

  • Asian Pacific Islanders and Blacks come in at 6.8 per every 100,000

  • Hispanics have a rate of 6.89 per every 100,000

So clearly every group is struggling from this epidemic a little differently, however with that in mind, all of them are increasing over time. From social media, to higher competition in education and workplace, the pressures are high and it's causing an epidemic that needs to be addressed, which is why the FCC has brought it to Congress.

Last year, the National Suicide Prevention hotline answered over 2 million calls; and that is with the number being a full 10 digit number (1-800-273-8255). Thus, the hope to change it to a 3 digit number that people would not have to look up and search for would provide greater access and thus, save more lives of people from every culture and age who may be struggling.

Personally, this is an issue near and dear to my heart. It is the reason I became so involved in mental health advocacy. During my first few months in college, two friends took their own lives, and I was devastated. My way of coping led me here to AYANA, to also being involved in mental health organizations like Active Minds on campus where I had the opportunity to address these issues. From those deaths, my hometown school district in Oceanside, CA, has taken some action to make important changes around mental health. One of these actions included putting the suicide prevention hotline on the back of school ID cards. Although this is a great way to get that resource out to students who may need it, other people may view it as a constant reminder to this epidemic. If the number 988 is written into people’s minds then maybe there wouldn’t have to be a constant reminder of it everywhere.

With the new 988 number, it is expected to increase calls by 100%, or at least that is the hope. That would be over 4 million calls a year, which would also increase the cost needed to support these resource centers and their employees. The cost of this was estimated to be about $50 million. Although this seems like a drastic amount to a civilian, the government has been trying to implement more mental health resources and this could be a great step to take even with the cost. Last year a bill was put into place called the National Suicide Prevention Improvement Bill which helped start this conversation about switching the number.

A fear with this switch may be how people treat a 988 line if it has the same connotation as a 911 emergency. Would people feel as comfortable reaching out with their suicidal ideation if it seems as if it has to be an emergency? It may just need to be advertised in such a way that really emphasizes the switch from the current National Suicide Prevention Hotline that accepts calls from anyone, any time of day, with any stage of suicidal ideation, in order to not scare people off and instead, welcome them as much as the current Hotline does.

However, as long as it is given and promoted as an accessible resource, the widespread adaptation of this implementation could definitely save lives, and help people find someone to talk to in times of need. An important thing to note is that this line could be as much of a life-saving resource as 911 is to other safety emergencies. A person does have the ability to change someone’s mind in the moment and these people at such call centers are trained to help discuss suicide while people are in very vulnerable situations.

AYANA and Suicide

Mentioned last week, Ayana is here to provide therapy with some of the best therapists in the US for minority groups of people. These therapists are trained to help with anything from depression to anxiety to PTSD to eating disorders to suicidal ideation. However, that doesn’t mean that a federal 988 number wouldn’t help promote a similar mission to Ayana and support people who need immediate care in a moment when suicidal thoughts float into someone’s mind. With minority mental health being at the frontline of our mission, this suicide hotline is something we support in bringing better mental health services to groups who need it most and may not have known about them before. From LGBTQ+ community, Native Americans, Veterans, and more having a very hard time with suicide, we are here to support anyone who needs it in any way we can.

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