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3-Digit Hotline Aims To Assist In Suicide Prevention


So would a three-digit number help those in crisis more than a 10-digit one? It's a question on the mind of the federal agency that wants to start a new three-digit hotline for people feeling suicidal or going through any other mental health crisis. NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee has been looking into this.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: The FCC is proposing to make 988 as the national number for the new mental health hotline. And it would replace the existing Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

MADELYN GOULD: This is a great idea.

CHATTERJEE: Madelyn Gould is a psychiatrist at Columbia University and an expert on suicide prevention. Her research shows that the Suicide Prevention Lifeline does save lives. But, Gould says, the hotline has a clunky, 10-digit number.

GOULD: The 1-800-273-TALK - 1-800-273-8255 - even as I'm telling you what that number is, you know, it takes a while to even just say it.

CHATTERJEE: And it can be difficult for people to remember the number in the midst of a crisis.

GOULD: People can have a cognitive shutdown or, you know, blank, as any of us do when we can't remember things in times of extreme stress.

CHATTERJEE: Having the 988 number, she says, will make it easier for people to call. David Covington is the CEO of RI International, a behavioral health care provider. He says Americans know to call 911 for all other kinds of emergencies.

DAVID COVINGTON: When my father was having chest pains, we immediately called 911. It's very straightforward what you do in our society related to fire or medical or other kinds of emergencies.

CHATTERJEE: But, he says, it isn't as straightforward to seek help for mental health crises. Covington hopes that the new hotline will change that.

COVINGTON: Having a three-digit national hotline would go a long way in beginning to normalize that it's OK to seek help.

CHATTERJEE: But he and other mental health advocates caution that just having a new hotline isn't enough to ensure that people get the help they need. Again, Madelyn Gould.

GOULD: The only way that this is going to work is if additional services are funded.

CHATTERJEE: That's because, she says, the new number will increase call volumes. Callers might be left waiting longer and feeling discouraged and helpless. Allie Franklin is the executive director of Crisis Connections, one of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline centers in the state of Washington.

ALLIE FRANKLIN: We know that it's really important for someone to get a live answer very quickly when they call.

CHATTERJEE: She says her organization attempts to respond to calls within 30 seconds. But in 2018, there was a rise in number of calls for a couple of reasons. The rapper Logic performed his song about suicidal thoughts at the Grammys.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1-800-273-8255")

LOGIC: (Singing) I been on the low. I been taking my time...

GOULD: The song's name was the number to the suicide prevention hotline.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1-800-273-8255")

LOGIC: (Singing) I want you to be alive. I want you to be alive...

CHATTERJEE: Then a couple of celebrities died by suicide. Franklin says her organization was overwhelmed by the number of calls.

FRANKLIN: It was really difficult in Washington when we had a 45% increase in calls statewide.

CHATTERJEE: She had to find additional funds to respond to the higher number of calls. Franklin expects a surge in calls when the national 988 number becomes available. And that's a good thing.

FRANKLIN: But how do we make sure that we have enough sustainable funding to always have someone answering the line?

CHATTERJEE: Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News.


Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.
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