When a medical emergency occurs, even with the confusion and surging adrenaline, people know just what to do: Call 911.

But for people in the midst of a mental health emergency, it’s not quite that simple. They, too, are in the middle of a crisis where time is of the essence – but instead of having an easy-to-remember three-digit number at the ready, they have to first look up who to call.

With any luck, that search will take them to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, and they’ll get the help they need. But we shouldn’t count on it.

The Federal Communications Commission has proposed switching the hotline’s number to 988, a small change that could make a big difference. The current hotline number is 1-800-273 TALK or 1-800-273-8255. It’s hard to remember, experts say, particularly in times of great stress – just when it is needed most.

And it’s needed a lot. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than 47,000 Americans died by suicide in 2017, and more than 1.4 million adults attempted suicide. There was a 30 percent increase in the suicide rate from 2000 to 2016, when it was the 10th-leading cause of death among Americans, and the second-leading cause among Americans ages 10-34.

In Maine, suicide kills more than 200 people a year, putting our state well above the rates of New England and the U.S. as a whole. The state’s youth survey found that 10 percent of Maine high school students had attempted suicide within the last year.

The national hotline answered more than 2 million calls last year, each from someone who was suffering a crisis and found the help they needed. That doesn’t always happen. Unlike a physical medical emergency, mental health emergencies aren’t usually obvious to the outside observer and don’t usually elicit help from bystanders.

It is therefore critical that people feel safe and comfortable calling the hotline even before they begin contemplating suicide, when they feel their anxiety or depression escalating. The three-digit number is not only easier to remember than the current number, it is a sign to callers that we as a society take suicide seriously enough to give it special attention.

The FCC is expected to seek public comment soon on the change, which the agency can make without approval of Congress. But legislators will have to make sure that the hotline is properly funded so that every call is answered.

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is actually a patchwork of more than 160 regional call centers using a variety of funding sources. If the nearest call centers cannot answer a call, it is bounced to another; the expected surge in calls brought on by a new, simpler number may overwhelm current resources and cause calls to be delayed or dropped.

An increase in calls would be a welcome result; experts say there are people out there who need help that aren’t calling. The FCC should put the new number in place, and then Congress should make sure there are enough people ready to answer the calls.

 


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