FCC approves ‘988’ for texting the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Next summer, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will be opening up a new 3-digit dialing code to help those in crisis easily reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by either text or phone call.

The FCC voted unanimously today to improve access to the Lifeline by allowing people to send a text message to 988, which it hopes will make it easier for people in need to contact a crisis counselor by offering a short and memorable number that can receive texts from any smartphone or even from a computer.

On an average day, nearly 6,000 Americans call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline @800273TALK to seek help. That’s roughly one call every 15 seconds. #SuicidePrevention

— Jessica Rosenworcel (@JRosenworcelFCC) November 18, 2021

FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel pointed out on Twitter that nearly 6,000 Americans place calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline every day, which works out to one call every 15 seconds. The Text-to-988 option promises to make the service more accessible to those with difficulties speaking on the phone, as well as folks who may just prefer more anonymity.

“Quick and easy access to mental health and crisis counseling services is critical,” the FCC said in a press release. “In 2020, 44,834 individuals died by suicide in the United States, and evidence suggests the toll of the global pandemic has only increased the strain on many Americans’ mental health and well-being. Suicide significantly impacts at-risk communities, including youth, the Black community, the LGBTQ+ community, veterans, and the deaf, hard of hearing, deaf-blind, and people who have speech disabilities that affect communication. For individuals in crisis, text messaging can make it easier to contact a crisis counselor by allowing for a certain level of anonymity rather than engaging in a phone conversation.”

Following a 2019 FCC report to congress that recommended establishing a 3-digit number for the Lifeline, the FCC voted last year to designate 988 to route calls to the service, which has been available for some time as a standard 10-digit toll-free number.

However, this prior action only affected voice phone calls. Today’s decision expands that with new rules that will require carriers to support text messaging to 988, with text messages sent to that number routed to the Lifeline’s 10-digit number. Text providers will also need to take steps to ensure that messages are in a format that the Lifeline is capable of receiving. 

The 988 number will go live for both calls and texts on July 16, 2022. Until then, Americans who need help can still call the standard number, 1-800-273-8255 (TALK), or use the Lifeline’s web-based online chat service.

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