With suicides on the rise in Washington state and around the country, the U.S. government wants to make the national crisis hotline easier to reach.
Under the proposed change, people would dial 988 to seek help. Currently, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline uses a 10-digit number, 800-273-TALK (8255). Callers are routed to one of 163 crisis centers, where counselors answered 2.2 million calls last year.
Washington is home to three such crisis centers — Seattle’s Crisis Connections, Bremerton’s Crisis Clinic of the Peninsulas and Everett’s Volunteers of America Crisis Response Services. The national Lifeline received 23,038 calls from Washington in the last six months of 2018, according to the federally funded Suicide Prevention Resource Center.
“We faced a call-volume increase here in the state of Washington of more than 45% last year,” said Allie Franklin, executive director of Crisis Connections. She attributed that increase in part to several high-profile celebrity suicides and the rapper Logic’s song named after the hotline number.
Crisis Connections is still waiting for details from the national Lifeline about how the three-digit number would be implemented, Franklin said.
A law passed last year required the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to consider a three-digit number for suicide prevention, as it has adopted 911 for emergencies or 311 for city services. There is “overwhelming support” for a three-digit number because it would be easier for distressed people to get help, the FCC said this week.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said he intends to start the monthslong process to make that happen.
The government’s action comes as suicide rates have increased across the U.S. over the past two decades, and dramatically so — by more than 30% — in half of U.S. states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There were 45,000 such deaths in 2016.
Reflecting national trends, Washington’s suicide rate rose between 1999 and 2016 by 18.8%, according to the CDC. But King County has fared a little better than elsewhere in Washington, with a suicide rate of 12.3 deaths per 100,000 residents compared to a statewide rate of 14.61 as of 2014, according to CDC data.
“We haven’t actually seen in King County an overall increase in suicides since 2008,” said Karyn Brownson, a community safety manager with Public Health — Seattle and King County. “The numbers have stayed relatively stable.”
She couldn’t speculate on why the county’s rate has remained steady, but noted that the Seattle area has a comparatively high “concentration of both expertise and resources.”
The new, shorter hotline number would likely lead to more calls, which in turn would mean more expenses for crisis centers already struggling to keep up. If the number of calls to the hotline doubled, centers would need an extra $50 million a year to handle the increase, the FCC said, citing the federal agency that funds the hotline, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
“This number and the advertising about [it] would likely drive a higher volume, and … When the number is advertised on the national basis, we see surges in calls,” Franklin said.
This could be an issue in Washington, where the Suicide Prevention Resource Center reports that 22% of calls made in the second half of 2018 — or 5,099 people — couldn’t be answered by a crisis center within the state because the phone lines were too busy. When this is the case, backup centers elsewhere in the country do their best to respond.
“We’re hoping that with increased awareness and also increased legislative attention to [the hotline], that there would be additional dollars that would come to help support local centers to answer the calls and to staff up,” Franklin said.
Washington has made a “good effort” to fulfill its state suicide-prevention plan but “everybody always needs more resources for that work,” said Brownson.
Crisis Connections’ current funding includes state and local money, private donations and a small stipend from the National Lifeline.
Material from The Associated Press was included in this report.