FCC's Ajit Pai hopes a 988 suicide prevention number will save lives

The chairman tells CNET that establishing 988 will acknowledge suicide as a serious issue that demands attention. The FCC votes on 988 next month.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
4 min read

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai testifies before a Senate oversight committee hearing. 

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Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, wants the new 988 suicide prevention number to be as top of mind for Americans in a mental health crisis as the easy-to-remember 911 emergency number. And he hopes it can save lives.

That's why he and his colleagues on the FCC have been pushing for the adoption of the new three-digit number that will link directly to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. The full FCC is expected to vote on final rules to implement the new number on July 16


Now What

Today, the suicide prevention hotline is accessed via 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). Once the rules are adopted next month, phone providers will have until July 16, 2022, to switch to the three-digit number. The 1-800 number will continue to work until the transition to 988 is complete. 

Watch this: FCC Chairman talks about the new 988 suicide prevention number

In an interview with CNET, Pai said he hopes that having a designated three-digit number will help spur a national conversation around mental health.

"Mental health still is seen as an issue that shouldn't be discussed or can't be discussed in an open way," he said. 

Pai said that the FCC's effort in establishing 988 for suicide prevention is an acknowledgement by the federal government that this is a serious issue that demands attention. 

"We have now come to the point in our culture where we can have an open discussion about the fact that life is not easy for many, many people," he said. "Just as in the health care context, where we wouldn't bat an eyelash if somebody breaks his leg or has asthma and needs to go get treatment, I think we need to think about mental health issues in the same way."

Suicide prevention experts agree that the three-digit number will be a breakthrough for directing people to the help they need. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates have increased across the US over the past two decades. Experts also warn that the US may be heading toward a mental health crisis, as Americans report high levels of emotional distress due to thecoronavirus pandemic. This, plus the fact that the mental health care system in the US is already under stress during the pandemic, means that there are likely more people in need of help.

According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, more than half of Americans -- about 56% -- reported that worry about the COVID-19 outbreak has led to at least one negative mental health effect, such as trouble with eating or sleeping, drinking alcohol more, frequent headaches or stomach aches. They also report less ability to cope with stressful situations and shorter tempers. 

Pai acknowledged that the new number won't come fast enough for some. But he said the FCC's two-year timeline is needed to work out the technical issues of transitioning to the number and to make sure that the entire country has access to 988 at the same time so that there is no confusion about which number to use. 

He's also hopeful that the new number and the public awareness campaign that will go along with it will spur people to reach out for help. He noted that of the 2.2 million calls to the existing Lifeline number every year, experts know there are millions of other people who have contemplated suicide or who have attempted suicide but who never called for help. 

But he added that when the number has been publicized, it has led to more calls. For example, when the rapper Logic in 2017 released a song about suicide titled 1-800-273-8255 -- the phone number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline -- there was a spike in calls to the Lifeline. He said each time Logic performed the song at major events like the Grammys there was a surge in calls to the hotline.

"It highlights the fact that for a lot of people, awareness is a big issue, that they don't know that the lifeline resource is there," he said. "Once they become aware of it, they are willing to reach out for help."

Pai also spoke about a visit he had made to one of the Lifeline call centers earlier this year and of the dedicated counselors fielding the calls. 

"I just want to support their efforts in any way I can," he said. "And if it helps save more lives in the future. I think that's a really good thing."

If you're struggling with negative thoughts or suicidal feelings, here are 13 suicide and crisis intervention hotlines you can use to get help.

You can also call these numbers:

US: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255. 

UK: The Samaritans can be reached at 116 123. 

AU: Lifeline can be reached at 13 11 14. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.