'988' could soon be the '911' of suicide prevention in the US, making it easier for anyone to call and get help

woman talking on phone
woman talking on phone

Shutterstock/Dmitry A

There's 911 for emergencies like fires and heart attacks, and soon, there could also be a 988 number for suicide prevention and help with mental health.

During an open meeting on Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission formally proposed making "9-8-8" the code to call if you're thinking about suicide, or even if you just need some emotional support.

The proposed rule comes as suicide deaths are on the rise among almost every single demographic in the U.S., including young pre-teens and college students, nurses, stay-at-home-parents, men working in construction, and middle-aged, working-class adults.

"If your house is on fire, you don't have to look up the fire department's number, you just dial 911." Congressman Seth Moulton (D-MA) tweeted Thursday in support of the proposal. "It should be just as easy for mental health emergencies."

FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly spoke openly about his brother-in-law's recent suicide at the meeting, saying he died two and a half months ago.

"I like the idea of a short code," O'Rielly said. "I hope it really does save lives."

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, funded by the federal government, answered over 2.2 million calls last year. One 2018 study of the lifeline suggested that the calls, and follow-up calls hotline workers make to callers, stop people from killing themselves, and also help keep them safe.

"People call to talk about lots of things: substance abuse, economic worries, relationships, sexual identity, getting over abuse, depression, mental and physical illness, and loneliness, to name a few," the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline's website says. "Talking with someone about your thoughts and feelings can save your life."

Celebrities including gold-medal Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps have also spoken more openly about their struggles with suicidal thoughts and mental health in recent years, hoping to erase some of the stigma that surrounds the topic of suicide.

"I didn't want to be alive anymore," Phelps recently told Business Insider, speaking about a time before the 2016 Olympics, when he was struggling with depression. "The reason why I'm here talking today, is being able to allow myself to be vulnerable."

The FCC will now move into a public comment period on the proposal, before any rule about the 3-digit hotline becomes final.

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