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3-Digit National Suicide Hotline Number Could Double Calls, Reduce Stigma

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255, or simplified, 1-800-273-TALK. (Allison Hagan/Here & Now)
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255, or simplified, 1-800-273-TALK. (Allison Hagan/Here & Now)

For individuals in crisis, the 10-digit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline could be difficult to remember.

Although the global rate of suicide has declined, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicides are on the rise in America: 47,000 people killed themselves in 2017; that comes out to about one death every 11 minutes.

But there are others that, although they do not successfully attempt suicide, are still affected by suicidal thoughts and actions. The CDC reports that in 2017, 10.6 million American adults seriously thought about suicide.

Remembering the number 1-800-273-8255 could save someone’s life, but the trained counselors on the other end of the line can’t help unless you can reach them.

To help combat this tragic trend, the Federal Communications Commission has proposed a new, easy-to-remember three-digit number – 988.

It can be frightening to pick up the phone and ask for help. The FCC wants to simplify that process.

Here & Now’s Robin Young speaks to John Draper, director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, about their efforts.

Interview Highlights

On the lifeline’s outreach

“There’s about a little over 13 million people in the United States who think seriously about suicide throughout the United States. And that’s every year. And we think that if we’re reaching about 2.5 million callers that we have a lot more that we’re missing.

“If you’re in a crisis state, it’s really often hard to remember. It’s hard to dial. So if you give somebody less to remember and less to dial, it’s just going to make things easier. We call that creating cognitive access for people who are in crisis states, and the three digits that are being proposed are 9-8-8.”

On whether the lifeline can handle an influx of callers after the change

“Right now, our centers are needing additional resources so that’s certainly a concern, that as calls go up, you want to make sure that there are people who are available to answer those calls and that is already being discussed as part of this initiative. It’s not just opening the doors wide open, and ‘come one, come all.’ It’s got to be done thoughtfully with the right infrastructure in place.”

On addressing the stigma against mental illness in America

“I thought my daughter said it best. My daughter is a 19-year-old freshman in college. And she also has a history of anxiety and depression. I asked her what she thought about this three-digit number idea and she said, ‘I think it’s going to do more than anything to erase the stigma against mental illness here in the United States.’ And I said, ‘Why is that?’

“And she said, ‘Well, we have a three-digit number for medical emergencies. Dad, if we had one for psychological emergencies, people would know that they’re real, and they would know that when you dial [that] three-digit number that you’ve got a different kind of help than cops or an ambulance coming to your door.’

“Not in any way to disparage law enforcement or what happens with technicians who drive ambulances, but unquestionably a different response is required. And I think part of the reason perhaps that people aren’t calling the lifeline, to the extent they could be, is because they’re afraid of that kind of response.”

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna. Alexander Tuerk adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.