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New suicide prevention hotline number to have three-digits, like 911

Posted at 7:08 PM, Dec 17, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-17 23:28:26-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — If a person is having a medical emergency or is in harm's way, he or she dials 911. It's a simple three-digit number to remember.

But what if that person is experiencing a mental health crisis? There might soon be a three-digit number the person can dial and immediately be connected to experts in suicide prevention and mental health.

The Federal Communications Commission unanimously voted earlier this month to proceed with a proposal to set up a three-digit number to reach a suicide prevention hotline. Once implemented, people will just need to dial 988 to seek help.

Advocates said a three-digit number would be easier for distressed people to get help. Tim DeWeese, the director of Johnson County Mental Health, said they have noticed the increase in suicide and "death by suicide."

"Anything we can do to provide that easy access to care, easy access to services makes sense," DeWeese said.

Johnson County runs its own 24/7 crisis hotline but DeWeese is in favor of a three-digit number for a national hotline.

"It's very easy to remember 988, just like 911," he said.

Currently, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline uses a 10-digit number. When callers dial 800-273-TALK, they are routed to one of 163 crisis centers across the country.

The new 988 number is not connected with the suicide prevention hotline. Before the three-digit number is finalized by the FCC, there will be a public comment period.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates have increased in every state, except Nevada, from 1999 to 2016. Half of the states have seen suicide rates increased by more than 30 percent.

With a new, shorter number, advocates warn the centers would likely receive more calls. Last year, counselors answered 2.2 million calls, according to the Associated Press.

"If we could just remember a three-digit code, that makes it a whole lot easier for people to access," DeWeese said. "The key is being able to dial that 988 number and having structures in place for us to handle the call volume that we'll ultimately see."

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. You can also contact the Johnson County Mental Health 24-hour Crisis Line at 913-268-0156.