FCC to vote in July to make '988' the suicide hotline number

Federal regulators will vote in July on whether to make “988” the number to reach a suicide prevention hotline.

The Federal Communications Commission says phone service providers will have until July 2022 to implement the new number, if the measure is approved in July, as expected.

Once it's in place, people will be able to dial 988 to seek help, like how you can call 911 for an emergency. Currently, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline uses a 10-digit number, 800-273-TALK (8255), which routes calls to about 170 crisis centers.

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That 800 number will remain in place, but having the shorter number makes it easier for people to call, and is expected to lead to an increase in calls to the hotline.

Suicide-prevention experts have said that the three-digit number will be a breakthrough that helps people in crisis. One aspect of designating a three-digit number for the hotline, just like 911 for emergencies, is that it removes stigma for seeking help in a mental-health emergency, they say.

The government’s action comes as suicide rates have increased across the U.S. over the past two decades. The COVID-19 pandemic has put even more strain on the nation's mental health care system, and experts have been concerned about the impact as the virus and its aftershocks may deepen people's levels of anxiety and depression.

Researchers had found the pandemic has affected the mental health of many, but especially teenagers and children. Young people who were diagnosed with ADHD for the first time rose 66 percent during March and April, while 41 percent of patient visits among children and teenagers also involved discussion of depression, according to Athenahealth.

“Mental health does not discriminate. With this pandemic happening and all diversities being affected, many people across all social classes will be impacted, the hardest hitting low income who cannot afford or find the proper help,” said Tim Ryan, recovery advocate for Rehab.com. “Many people left untreated—left in their own mental health world of hell, suicides are on the rise, people will be trying to self-medicate with drugs and/or alcohol, self-harm and loss of housing and total life skills. There will be more dysfunction in family homes.”

In addition, this takes a severe toll on those forced to care for their young and sustain jobs and livelihoods where possible.

“Anxiety, stress, obsessive thinking, paranoia, depression, and thoughts of suicide have greatly increased among individuals with and without previous mental health issues. People who normally don’t regularly drink alcohol have turned to drinking daily in order to numb the stress of multitasking,” said clinical psychologist, Shannon Kroner. “I have personally spoken to many mothers who have turned to day drinking in order to just get through a day of helping their kids with schoolwork, keeping the house clean, making sure everyone is fed, and trying to keep up with their jobs through teleconferences and zoom calls.”

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Add in multiple children in different grades, or an infant, or a child with special needs, and the stress can be overwhelming to any parent, Kroner pointed out. Additionally, marriages are being strained due to sharing the same space 24 hours a day, seven days a week with a partner, especially if there are also children involved.

The elderly, who are most at-risk of dying from COVID-19, have mostly been forced into debilitating isolation, and front-line medical workers, despite the outpouring of gratitude from communities for their tireless effort in combating the virus and saving lives, are also among those most at risk of severe mental health consequences. Exacerbating their tensions is the notion that frontline workers face losses and are not afforded the time off to mourn and recuperate.

A study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association regarding the mental health outcomes of health care workers attending to COVID-19 patients in China highlighted that more than 70 percent reported psychological distress, 50 percent reported symptoms of depression and anxiety, and 34 percent experienced insomnia.

“Cure cannot be worse than a pandemic itself. People are touching their limits and are unable to handle current circumstances. It’s already been really long. There are many positives for mental health out of this crisis though,” conjectured Weronika Rogowska, Los Angeles-based psychologist and life coach. “There is an opportunity in every situation. Probably many inventions are already born. People had a lot of time to get creative. When everything comes back to normality, we all going to be determined and motivated.”

The Associated Press and FOX News contributed to this report.