When a person is considering suicide, access to a crisis call center is often a matter of life and death. Fortunately, there is much that can be done to make it easier for a person in pain to quickly and easily get the help they need.
That’s why recent efforts to designate a single three-digit telephone number for suicide prevention hotlines nationwide deserve public support, even if there are still many details to be worked out.
There is no question the work needs to be done, as the country is in the midst of a deepening public mental health crisis.
Suicide rates are at their highest levels since the end of World War II, with an average of 20 people taking their own lives every day. In 2017, the most recent year for which complete federal statistics are available, more than 47,000 Americans died by suicide and more than 1.4 million adults attempted suicide.
In Massachusetts that year, 682 adults took their own lives — a total higher than deaths from auto crashes and homicides combined. As Christian Wade reported last week, that’s up 8% from 2016 and an increase of nearly 60% from 2004.
Suicide hotlines are one of many ways to help those in need, and it’s why the Federal Communications Commission has pushed to designate 988 as the country’s nationwide hotline number.
“Our team found that a three-digit number would make it easier for Americans in crisis to reach someone who could help,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai told The New York Times last month. “If we can stand up ‘988’ nationwide as a way to access suicide prevention services, we believe it could save lives. I’ll do everything I can to move this forward.”
It is a good idea. Last year, more than 2.2 million people called the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, according to the FCC. Those who call are routed to the closest of 163 certified crisis centers nationwide where they typically talk to a trained volunteer.
Those callers dialed 1-800-273-8255 to get help. It’s not an easy number to remember in a time of crisis.
“Whether you’re contemplating suicide, have a panic attack, or are a veteran dealing with post-traumatic stress, you need to be able to dial one number to get connected to the professional you need,” Congressman Seth Moulton said last week.
The Salem Democrat made his statement during a visit to the Samaritan’s Helpline Center in Boston, where he was touting legislation he co-sponsored to designate 988 as the national call number.
The bill, which has several bipartisan co-sponsors, also addresses how to pay for the not-inexpensive switch, which would cost about $570 million to set up in the first year, and $175 million a year going forward.
Moulton’s bill would pay for the switch by allowing states to charge a fee similar to the charge for 911 services added to phone and cable bills. It’s not a bad approach, but one that must be fully explained to taxpayers, who already are subjected to a dizzying number of poorly explained extra charges to their accounts.
Also, there are some mental health groups, including Vibrant Emotional Health, the nonprofit administrator that helps run the national hotline, that feel a different number is more easily remembered and would be a better upgrade.
Kimberly Williams, president and chief executive officer of Vibrant Emotional Health, said in a statement: “We are gratified the FCC ... recognizes the need for a three-digit number dedicated to mental health support as we believe this number will reduce suicides in the United States. That said, we are interested in understanding more as to why a more easily remembered number, such as 611, was not more thoroughly considered. We look forward to learning more about this important consideration.”
It is also important to remember that a call to a crisis hotline, even if successfully resolved, is only a momentary intervention, like emergency treatment received from a paramedic. The underlying mental health issues that remain often require long-term attention.
Still, the move to a more easily remembered number is an important part of an overall effort to address the country’s mental health crisis. Here’s hoping a spirit of bipartisanship brings actual results.