Bill to Make 988 the Nationwide Suicide Prevention Hotline Heads to the President’s Desk

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The Federal Communications Commission is laying the groundwork to launch by mid-2022.

Legislation designating the three-digit code 988 as the universal, hard-to-forget phone number people in the U.S. can dial to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is moving to the president’s desk for signature. 

The House of Representatives on Monday passed the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act, which the Senate passed in May. The bill builds on a many months-long effort that involves the Federal Communications Commission—and ultimately aims to help save lives by making it easier for individuals to remember how to access mental health support they need. 

The newly assigned hotline will also include the Veterans Crisis Line for veteran-specific mental health support.

“In America, we lose about 45,000 people every year to suicide, including more than 6,100 veterans, making it one of the leading causes of death in this country,” Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., one of the bills sponsors, said in a statement. “We need to do everything we can to prevent suicide and that means improving the tools we have to help people who are suffering from depression or other mental health concerns.”

With Baldwin, Sens. Cory Gardner, R-Col., Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Jack Reed, D-R.I., introduced the bill in 2019 and companion legislation was later put forward in the House by Reps. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, and Seth Moulton, D-Mass. Gardner’s press release on its passage notes that this now comes at a time when “calls to the mental health crisis line in Colorado have spiked 48 percent due in part to COVID-19.”

Currently, people must dial a 10-digit number to reach the suicide hotline, but the hope is that 988 will present less of a barrier to Americans enduring crisis and seeking support. 

The bill is moving forward on the heels of what was an almost year-long legislative journey leading to its bicameral passage, which involved several official letters sent to Congressional leadership—including one from 48 mental health groups—urging the new hotline’s designation.

“This is a win for every American who has been affected by a mental illness,” Moulton said. “It is a national step forward out of the shadows of stigma that prevent too many people from seeking help into a new era where mental health care is easy to get and normal to talk about.”

The FCC has already embarked on its own steps to establish 988 as the national suicide hotline number by July 16, 2022. The recently passed legislation would build on those, and permit states to impose fees and charges, like those incorporated with the use of 911, to help fund personnel and other expenses that arise in making it possible.

For now, people hoping for help are encouraged to continue to use the 10-digit number to connect to the hotline—1-800-273-8255—until the agency finalizes the technical implementation of the nationwide three-button number.

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