As a millennial, the number 911 was so familiar to me growing up that when I found it had only come about during my mother’s childhood, I couldn’t believe it. What did people do before 911? It sounded terrifying.
I hope future generations one day feel the same way about the nation’s new suicide hotline, implemented just this year. During his time as chair of the FCC, Ajit Pai oversaw the initiative to create this resource, which can now be reached by dialing 988.
Beginning on July 16, 2022 the 988 dialing code will be available nationwide to connect to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, @800273TALK, through a phone call, text, or chat. #SuicidePrevention
— The FCC (@FCC) April 19, 2022
If you’ve had the good fortune to never be in desperate need of mental health care, help for you or a loved one, you might have no idea just how vitally needed this number was. Previously, calls to suicide prevention lines would frequently come with long wait times, being connected to people outside of your region, and confusion on the other end, as well-meaning people struggled to navigate the complexities of our mental healthcare system and best direct those in need.
At one time, I recall trying to maneuver this system on behalf of a friend in distress and thinking, ‘If I were myself in the throes of depression or anxiety right now, there’s no way I could do this.’
Proud of the work we did @FCC to establish 988 as a three-digit number for #suicideprevention and mental health. I know its nationwide activation will save lives and I hope it’ll become a part of our common consciousness, like 911. For those who are struggling: you are not alone. https://t.co/DOhIEWmjzI
— Ajit Pai (@AjitPai) April 20, 2022
It turns out, I was not alone.
Since it became live, the 988 National Suicide Prevention Hotline has experienced a 45% increase in call volume compared to August 2021. And not only are more people reaching out, but it also looks like they’re getting the help they need.
Early data shows that thousands of lives may have been saved in one month alone since the transition. Wait times have also decreased, plunging from 2.5 minutes to only 42 seconds.
Great early results: "The rollout of 988 as the new National Suicide Prevention Lifeline may have saved more than 150,000 more lives in one month than it would have before the transition," with wait times down from 2.5 minutes to 42 seconds. @AdriannaUSAT https://t.co/tE6geg1YhF
— Ajit Pai (@AjitPai) October 12, 2022
Suicide is one of the top killers in the country. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the US lost one person to this silent killer every 11 minutes in 2020. That doesn’t take into account the number of failed attempts or the millions of people who live daily with suicidal ideation.
But the good news is, intervention works. In fact, 9 out of 10 people who attempt suicide unsuccessfully will not go on to die by suicide—but getting the proper care and intervention is essential in creating that statistic.
That means the new suicide hotline offers incredible possibilities in our fight against mental illness. But it also means we need a lot more people to enter the field of care. As the COVID lockdowns have exacerbated our already existing mental health crisis, it is imperative that we have providers ready to meet the needs (demand) of people who are struggling.
There’s also a lot the government can do to make it easier to obtain these services. That would look like removing restrictions on telehealth, getting insurance out of the mix and allowing direct care for patients, descheduling natural drugs that assist in therapy and mental health treatment, and making higher education more affordable so more people can become providers.
The 988 number is an excellent first step in this fight, but we implore the government to do more to open access to care.