By Margaret Wile and Abbie Gruwell
Suicide was the tenth leading cause of death in the US in 2018, claiming the lives of nearly 50,000 Americans.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), males are more likely to die from suicide and they are most likely to use a firearm. Suicide was the second cause of death among people ages 10-34 and the fourth leading cause of death between people ages 35-54 in 2018. In that same year there were more than two and a half times as many suicides as there were homicides.
In June of 2020, in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, the CDC conducted a study to access the population’s mental health and found an increase in level of adverse mental health conditions, substance use and suicidal ideation or thinking about suicide.
The findings showed that twice as many respondents reported seriously considering suicide than in 2018 and that mental health conditions are disproportionately affecting certain populations, including young adults, Hispanic and Black people, essential workers, unpaid caregivers for adults and those receiving treatment for preexisting psychiatric conditions.
With the pandemic exacerbating this existing issue, Congress has stepped in and passed a new law designating “988” as a new national suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline, connecting individuals directly to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
A 2019 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) staff report to Congress proposed establishing 988 as an easy to remember code for the lifeline; a longer number was recognized as a potential barrier to individuals reaching out. The new law also gives states the authority to impose fees, similar to the funding mechanism for 911.
The FCC adopted rules in July 2020 to require all phone service providers to direct all “988” calls to the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by July 16, 2022. The new rules will apply to all telecommunications carriers as well as all interconnected and one-way Voice over Internet Protocol service providers.
The program provides for a two-year transition to allow for widespread network changes and provide time for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to prepare for the expected increase in the volume of calls.
However, the FCC rule does not include a current plan to incorporate the ability to text to “988.” Until the 2022 deadline, calls to “988” will be directed to 1-800-273-TALK, which will also remain operational after 2022. The newly assigned hotline will also include the Veterans Crisis Line for veteran-specific mental health support.
Margaret Wile is a policy director in NCSL’s Health and Human Service Program in NCSL’s State-Federal Relations Division.
Abbie Gruwell is senior committee director of NCSL’s Communications, Financial Services, and Interstate Commerce Committee.