FCC Requiring Phone Companies to Allow Texts to Suicide-Prevention Hotline

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted unanimously Thursday to require phone companies to accept texts, as well as calls to the new 988 phone number for the suicide-prevention hotline.

The decision comes after the communications regulator voted last July that the new 988 number be supported as a way for people looking to reach the existing hotline.

The vote was conducted as recognition from the commission that texting is one of the most popular forms of communication, especially among young people. Allowing texting access also opens the hotline to those who are deaf, have hearing problems, or have a speech disability.

Currently, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline uses 800-273-TALK (8255), which sends calls to about 180 call centers around the country.

"For millions of us, especially young people and those with disabilities—they are more likely to text than they are to call when they are in crisis," said FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel during the agency's meeting Thursday. "The bottom line is it should not matter when you make a voice call or send a text message, because we should connect people in crisis to the resources they need, no matter how they communicate."

After the vote, phone companies have until July 2022 to set up both the calling and texting systems for the 988 number. The FCC also said Thursday that currently, AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon already support 988 as a number people can call to reach the hotline.

Suicide rates have risen nationwide over the past 20 years, with a slight drop last year when around 45,000 people died by suicide in the U.S.

Experts say a three-digit hotline that is easier to remember and more publicized could help those in crisis by making mental health resources easier for people to reach.

According to the World Health Organization, suicide is the second leading cause of death among the ages of 15-29.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

FCC, Jessica Rosenworcel, Suicide Prevention Hotline
The FCC voted 4-0 Thursday to allow the new 988 suicide prevention hotline to receive texts as well as calls. Above, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel testifies during an oversight hearing to examine the FCC on June 24, 2020, in Washington, D.C. Jonathan Newton/Getty Images

"Texting to 988 is a huge step forward in improving how you address mental health," said Hannah Wesolowski, director of government relations for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. "Text messaging is a central part of how people communicate and for many individuals the primary way they communicate."

She said that demand for the hotline "is going to skyrocket" next year when the 988 system is fully in place and people actually know about it and that resources are going to have to increase as well so that people's calls and texts are answered.

If you have thoughts of suicide, confidential help is available for free at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Call 1-800-273-8255. The line is available 24 hours, every day. If someone you know appears to be contemplating suicide, visit Bethe1To.com for assistance.