The disturbing rise in suicides across the United States the past several years has mobilized myriad groups and resources to address the matter. On many fronts, so much more is now being done to deal with this painful issue.
But perhaps one of the potentially more practical moves involves less, not more.
Last week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) formally proposed establishing a new number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, changing it to a simple 9-8-8.
The current number is 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). It’s not exactly designed for top-of-mind awareness, but even so, the 163 crisis centers across the country handled approximately 2.2 million calls last year.
In an issue dominated by sad statistics, the numbers 9-8-8 can perhaps serve as a lifeline of hope for even more people.
The background here is grim. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of suicide in this country climbed 33 percent between 1999 and 2017, rising most significantly in people between the ages of 15-64 — which is a terribly broad range.
It’s also a fact that suicide rates seem to be spiking among certain groups. For instance, military personnel and veterans have been strongly impacted: One recent report estimates there are 20 military suicides per day in this country. Also, PBS reported last week that police departments around the U.S. are coping with an “epidemic” of suicides. At the time of the report, there had been 122 police suicides in this year, putting the country on pace for its highest such toll in four years. Recently, President Donald Trump authorized grant money for police suicide prevention efforts, mental health evaluations and training.
But those two subgroups — which share PTSD and depression as occupational hazards — are really an unfortunate reflection of the nation as a whole. Most every community is touched by suicide, and chances are that most people know someone who took their own life or at least attempted it.
And that could well be viewed as a plague.
Thus, streamlining the hotline number is a prudent move. Advocates of the idea say the shorter, easier-to-remember number may generate more calls and, thus, more opportunities to intercede and make a difference.
There may be a financial downside to this plan, according to some analysts: An increase in the number of calls will add to the costs of running suicide-prevention programs. The FCC estimates that a doubling of phone calls could add $50 million in expense of crisis centers.
But consider the alternatives. It’s not hard to imagine: The numbers and the trends we’re seeing already paint the picture rather painfully. How do you put a price on NOT doing whatever you can to stop someone from taking his or her own life — even something as simple as creating a shorter phone number for that person to call?
The 9-8-8 hotline number is an excellent proposal. It would be easy to remember and convenient to use, especially in an anguished moment of personal crisis. Public comment is now being taken on the proposal. This is an idea worth championing.