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FCC Approves 988 as Suicide Hotline Number

The FCC has voted unanimously to designate 988 as a nationwide suicide hotline.

The commissioners said they recognized that the telecom industry was being asked to move quickly to implement the number.

But the number's approval comes as the pandemic has compounded mental health issues, pointed out commissioner Geoffrey Starks. The commissioner hosted an event earlier in the week on Black mental health. He said the FCC needs to be part of the conversation about Black youth suicide and mental health.

He said the media needs to advocate in a world where Black people not only survive but thrive. He said telehealth and closing the digital divide is also a critical step toward mental health.

Specifically the item:

• "Designates 988 as the 3-digit dialing code for the national suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline.

• "Requires voice service providers to transmit calls initiated by dialing 988 to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

• "Requires voice service providers to implement 988 by July 16, 2022.

• "To ensure that calls to 988 go through, requires all covered providers to implement 10-digit dialing in areas that both use 7-digit dialing and use 988 as the first 3 numbers in 7-digit phone numbers."

FCC chairman Ajit Pai said establishing 988 will make it easier for millions more Americans in crisis to access the help they need. "We know more lives will be saved." Pai said he hoped that putting 988 on par with 911 the FCC was sending a powerful signal that it was not a sign of weakness to seek help.

Pai called it possibly the most consequential vote the FCC would take during his tenure given the epic levels of suicide in the U.S.

Some carriers had wanted a rolling deadline and longer implementation period that July 2022, but Pai said it was a matter of life and death and the July 22 date would remain.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel supported the item, but said the FCC had missed an opportunity by not having a plan to incorporating texting into the number. 

The vote follows by a day the vote of the House Energy & Commerce Committee to approve a bill that would legislate 988 as the hotline number.

“We applaud the Commission’s adoption of 988 as the three-digit number by which callers will be able to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline," said NCTA-The Internet & Television Association. "Streamlining the method by which people in crisis can access the help line will help to save lives and provide people with suicide prevention and mental health counseling in a timely manner. We stand ready to work with the Commission, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and any other affected entities to implement the new 3-digit dialing code as quickly and seamlessly as possible.”