Recognizing that many Americans rely on texting, U.S. regulators are weighing whether to require that phone companies allow people to text a suicide hotline.
The Federal Communications Commission last summer voted to require a new “988” number for people to call to reach a suicide-prevention hotline. Phone companies have until July 2022 to implement it.
Once it’s in place, people will be able to dial 988 to seek help, similar to how 911 is used for emergencies. Currently, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline uses a 10-digit number, 800-273-TALK (8255), which routes calls to about 170 crisis centers.
Crisis counselors began responding to texts sent to the Lifeline last August, the FCC said. On Thursday, the agency voted unanimously to start a process that would also require phone companies to let people text 988. The agency noted the importance of texting for young people and those who are deaf, hard of hearing or have speech disabilities.
“While a voice hotline has its benefits, traditional telephone calls are no longer native communications for many young people. Texting is where they turn first,” said FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel in a statement. “So it’s time to make the suicide prevention hotline text accessible with 988.”
It’s not clear when texting would be available for the 988 number. FCC rules often take months to complete.
Suicide-prevention experts have said that the three-digit hotline could be a breakthrough that helps people in crisis. Suicide rates have largely been going up in the U.S. for the past two decades, although t hey dropped last year during the pandemic.