At a young age, Americans learn to call 9-1-1 if they find themselves in danger or in an emergency related to their physical well-being. Now, they’ll be able to do so if they find themselves endangered by diseases of despair as well.
This week, the five members of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission unanimously approved the 9-8-8 suicide prevention hotline. Within 18 months, all Americans will be able to call this number to seek help if they are at risk of suicide.
The new hotline will ease stress and confusion for existing 9-1-1 operators, while also more directly connecting people in need to those most equipped to help them. The 9-8-8 number specifically is being employed to make the process not only as simple as possible, but to elevate suicide prevention help to the level of importance and validity of 9-1-1 calls. By closely associating the two numbers, proponents of the new system hope they can reduce stigma around seeking help for mental illness.
With any luck, this new hotline can be an important part of a larger effort to stem the tide of this terrible fate. Over the last two decades, suicide rates in the United States have surged by nearly 33%. Suicide is now the tenth leading cause of death nationwide.
While the move has been widely applauded as a step in the right direction, some believe it does not yet go far enough. In particular, many have called for the 9-8-8 hotline to be responsive to text messages as well as calls. Some experiencing suicidal ideation may see texting as the most comfortable and safe first step in a longer process of healing, but may not be able or willing to call someone directly.
This new hotline is a huge moment for the crisis of mental illness in the United States. Practically speaking, it will be an indispensable resource for those who are struggling most. But it also symbolizes a larger shift in how we as a society think about and address mental illness. It is one more step toward a world where we truly encourage and enable those suffering from mental illness to reveal their internal experiences without shame and get the help they need to heal.