This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide please call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text TALK to 741741 or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.
The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission spoke exclusively on TODAY Tuesday about the coming change of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number to 988, a switch the agency said will help fight the stigma associated with mental health.
Ajit Pai said the hotline will change from its current number of 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to make it similar to 911 calls for emergencies. The new number is expected to be implemented across the country by July of 2022, Pai said.
"I simply want the folks to know that the reason the FCC is doing this now is because we want the millions of Americans who have been struggling, who think there's a stigma associated with getting help, we want them to know that they are not alone, that 988 could be the lifeline," Pai told Sheinelle Jones on the 3rd hour of TODAY.
"We want to make sure that they get the help they need, so they know they are loved."
The lengthy transition time to the new 988 number will ensure the switch goes smoothly for callers and service providers, the FCC said. It will also give time for counselors to prepare for an expected surge in call volume once the change is in effect.
"We believe that (July 2022) is the soonest date that is technically feasible," Pai said. "The issue is of course that we want to make sure it works across the country and whenever anybody dials 988, we want that to go to trained counselors who can help.
"Based on the public info we got from stakeholders, mental health advocates, the industry, and others, we believe that that two-year timeline is the soonest feasible timeline for getting it implemented."
Callers to the hotline are routed to one of 163 crisis centers, which handled 2.2 million calls in 2018, according to The Associated Press. The new number also aims to reduce the volume of mental health calls that go to 911.
There will be no other changes to the infrastructure of the hotline other than the number. Congress will be voting on July 16 to finalize 988 as the new number for mental health emergencies.
The expected change comes after age-adjusted suicide increased by 33% in the United States from 1999 through 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"We are really at a crossroads right now where the next pandemic is going to be a mental health one unless we do something about it," Dr. Sue Varma, a psychiatrist, told Sheinelle on TODAY. "Suicide is a national public health crisis and an emergency."
Suicide became the second-leading cause of death for those ages 10-34 in 2016 and the fourth-leading cause of death for people ages 35-54, according to the CDC.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that operates the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, announced in May that it will be awarding an emergency $40 million in grant money to 50 groups working to prevent suicide, which officials fear may rise during the coronavirus pandemic.
"That is also why we are experiencing more anxiety, depression and substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, is because of the fear, the uncertainty, the loneliness, economic losses, people in our family are getting sick, and as things are reopening we're afraid, are we gonna be hit with a second wave, so there is just so much going on," Varma said. "Getting a 988 phone number says, this is important."