Summoning the police or fire department is an act so straightforward, children are drilled to remember the significance of dialing “911” before they show up for the first day of kindergarten. Digits for directory assistance — 411 — are nearly as identifiable. Less widespread, though every bit as sticky in memory, are the municipal information lines such as Boston’s “311.”
Soon enough, a lifeline for those in the throes of a mental health crisis will be just as casually memorable.
The Federal Communications Commission last Thursday adopted “988” as a national suicide hotline. Its decision requires phone companies to implement the service within the next two years. Even though the FCC left details unresolved — most essential is how to pay for it — it deserves credit for keeping the momentum going in this effort to save lives.
We are now served by many suicide hotlines of the 11-digit variety. This will make the number to dial more easily recalled and, as such, more marketable. The hope is that it will save precious time now squandered as someone who needs to talk fishes around for information about whom to call.
“If the caller is in a suicide crisis, every moment is critical,” said Dr. Elinore F. McCance-Katz, assistant secretary for mental health and substance abuse in the Department of Health and Human Services. The only way to reduce suicide, she told the commission Thursday, is to answer promptly and give a caller directions for follow-up service.
“With the implementation we anticipate that many more Americans will receive help from suicide prevention and many more lives will be saved,” she said.
Answering the phone when it rings sounds easy enough, but it’s not happening anywhere near as efficiently as it should. As many as a quarter of the calls to some hotlines are deflected, with callers either encouraged to try again or wait as their calls are rerouted to another call center in another state.
“Imagine if 25% of the people who called because they were having a heart attack simply didn’t have their calls answered at the 911 centers,” Congressman Seth Moulton told WBUR last summer. “That’s unacceptable, and it’s got to end for this, as well.”
The need for a call center is plainly evident. Two years ago, more than 48,000 Americans committed suicide — about one person every 11 minutes — according to Jesse Goodwin, an attorney adviser to the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau. Some groups are at greater risk. Veterans, for example, take their own lives at a rate of more than 20 per day.
One can presume the problem is only exaggerated by effects of a pandemic, including widespread joblessness and social isolation. Commissioner Michael O’Rielly suggested as much in a prepared statement for last Thursday’s meeting.
O’Rielly and other FCC members also raised a crucial question about how this new service will be funded. While supporting the cause of “preserving sacred human lives,” Chairman Ajit Pai noted 988 at this point is basically an unfunded mandate on phone providers.
Even if suicide prevention call centers were not under-staffed, setting up a three-digit number that automatically directs people their way is not as straightforward or cheap as it sounds. And the FCC left no provision for a fee to be assessed on consumers to support the new hotline.
So, there are big, expensive questions left for Congress to answer. Moulton, the North Shore Democrat who advocated for a national, three-digit hotline, has also lobbied to allow states to require phone carriers to levy fees to support it. Whatever the source of money, this new nationwide number and the call centers it serves cannot fulfill their important role without it.
Two years from now, it seems likely that someone in need may pick up a phone and dial “988.” It’s still up to Congress to ensure a human answers at the other end.
If you’re in distress and need to speak with someone, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.