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Efforts To Stop Suicide Will Get A Boost In 2020


Efforts to prevent suicide get a boost in 2020. Federal budget has more money for the National Suicide Prevention hotline, and the FCC says it will designate a three-digit number for that line - not 911, but 988. NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee has more.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: The existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a 10-digit number - 1-800-273-TALK. Shari Sinwelski is with Vibrant Emotional Health, the organization that manages the lifeline. She says the hotline is, in fact, a network of more than a hundred local call centers.

SHARI SINWELSKI: We have 170 crisis centers - well, actually, a few more than that at the moment - that are part of our network across the country.

CHATTERJEE: When someone calls the lifeline, they're connected to a trained staff or volunteer at their local crisis center. If a local center is overwhelmed or is temporarily shut down, say, due to a power outage, the call is routed to a different center elsewhere in the network.

SINWELSKI: We have a backup system that allows - a call will always be answered no matter what.

CHATTERJEE: Sinwelski's organization funds this backup system with some of the federal money it receives. But sometimes, there are so many calls that people are put on hold for longer, or they get frustrated and hang up. That's why the extra $7 million in the 2020 budget could be helpful. These backup centers are crucial to managing the call volume, which has grown steadily over the years.

SINWELSKI: We typically see, on average, an increase of about 15% per year in terms of our call volume.

CHATTERJEE: Deaths by suicide in the U.S. have been rising since the '90s. There are many potential factors, but research (ph) point to the lack of economic opportunities and drug addiction. One thing that could help is the new plan for that three-digit number, 988. Lauren Conaboy is with Centerstone, a behavioral health care provider working in several states.

LAUREN CONABOY: The idea behind 988 is that somebody in that moment of crisis - first, they may not know that 1-800-273-TALK exists, and if they do know it, it probably is quite hard to remember 1-800 number.

CHATTERJEE: She says we know from 911 that a three-digit number is easier to remember and dial. David Covington is the CEO of RI International, a behavioral health care provider.

DAVID COVINGTON: We still have people in distress not knowing which number to call.

CHATTERJEE: He says many people still turn to 911 during a suicidal or other mental health crisis. When 988 becomes active, he says all those people will turn to the new number, as well as those now calling the national 800 number. Plus, there's a whole patchwork of local and regional crisis numbers that receive around 10 million calls every year. As a result, 988 will be very busy.

COVINGTON: This means that the current volume will likely increase tenfold in the first few years.

CHATTERJEE: Covington cautions that the number may not be available in 2020.

COVINGTON: We could see calls being answered in the next couple of years.

CHATTERJEE: But, he says, things will move forward this year. The FCC is already talking to telecom companies to figure out the technological aspects of making 988 a reality. And there are two bills pending in Congress - one in the House and one in the Senate - to fully roll out the 988 system, including money for marketing and operations. Both bills have widespread bipartisan support and will likely have hearings in the coming months. Jennifer Snow is with the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and she's grateful for the momentum behind the new system.

JENNIFER SNOW: We have a suicide crisis in our country. You know, the numbers keep increasing.

CHATTERJEE: She says getting help for suicide shouldn't be any harder than calling 911 after a car crash. Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News.


Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.