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Advocates Hope For A 'Turning Point' In Suicide Prevention With 988 Crisis Hotline Number

Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., shakes hands with veterans at a campaign event held at Liberty House in Manchester, N.H., in April. (Cheryl Senter/AP)
Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., shakes hands with veterans at a campaign event held at Liberty House in Manchester, N.H., in April. (Cheryl Senter/AP)

Some Boston-based suicide prevention advocates are backing a bill co-sponsored by Massachusetts U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton that would make 988 the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Creating an easy-to-remember three-digit number for the crisis hotline would improve access to mental health support and end stigma attached to getting that help, according to Moulton. He's a veteran who recently publicly shared that he sought help for post-traumatic stress after doing four tours of combat in Iraq.

"I think that this bill can be a huge part of that — for everybody to know in the country that just as you dial 911 if you wake up and your house is burning down, you dial 988 if you wake up and you need to have mental health assistance," he said. "Whether you're contemplating suicide or you just have a panic attack or an anxiety issue, you're a veteran with post-traumatic stress as so many veterans do, you need to be able to dial one number."

The Democrat Moulton, who represents the 6th Congressional District and who dropped out of the presidential race last week, introduced the legislation with Utah Republican Congressman Chris Stewart, who's also a veteran.

Moulton met Wednesday with suicide prevention advocates at the offices of Samaritans in downtown Boston. Samaritans has one of three call centers in Massachusetts that receive calls from the national hotline, which can currently be accessed by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Samaritans also receives calls and texts from its own local hotline number, 1-877-870-HOPE (4673).

The executive director of Samaritans, Steve Mongeau, said the creation of the 988 crisis hotline number would be a "turning point" in suicide prevention.

"I really believe in my heart and soul, this is what's going to finally drive down the rates of suicide in America," Mongeau said.

The legislation comes after staff at the Federal Communications Commission earlier this month recommended 988 be designated as the national suicide hotline number. That proposal has to go through the FCC rulemaking process, but the commission is expected to approve it.

According to Moulton, the proposed law is needed despite the FCC process because it would mandate that the change to 988 be made nationwide within a year, and it would provide a mechanism to fund call centers that take calls from the national hotline. States would be authorized to levy a 988 surcharge like the surcharge on phone bills that pays for 911 centers around the country.

Like many other suicide prevention hotline call centers, Samaritans is unable to answer upwards of 25% of calls that come in, according to Moulton and advocates. Though the Boston center is staffed by volunteers, there are also computers, training programs and other resources needed to operate it. People whose calls can't be answered locally at the Samaritans' call center will either hear a message suggesting they call back or get routed to a center in another state.

"Imagine if 25% of the people who called because they were having a heart attack simply didn't have their calls answered at the 911 centers," Moulton said. "That's unacceptable, and it's got to end for this, as well."

When the FCC announced its recommendation for 988 earlier this month, some advocates expressed concern about initial confusion surrounding the three-digit number.

Eileen Davis directs Call2Talk, a crisis hotline operated by United Way of Tri-County in Framingham. That service can already be accessed by calling 211, a number in use in many states for referrals to health and human service agencies.

Still, Davis welcomes the move toward a nationwide three-digit suicide hotline system.

"Having a three-digit number accessible when you are feeling in crisis or alone is definitely a critical factor," she said. "It's hard enough to actually make the decision to dial a number and wait for someone to engage with you."

The push for 988 comes after Congress last year passed a law calling for a study of the national suicide hotline system, which was meant to determine the best dialing number. That led to the FCC recommendation of 988 and now the new legislation, which currently has more than 50 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle.

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Lynn Jolicoeur Twitter Producer/Reporter
Lynn Jolicoeur is the field producer for WBUR's All Things Considered. She also reports for the station's various local news broadcasts.

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