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FCC votes to set up 3-digit suicide hotline number like 911

NEW YORK — The Federal Communications Commission is setting up a new three-digit number to reach a suicide prevention hotline.

Once it’s implemented, people will just need to dial 988 to seek help, similar to calling 911 for emergencies or 311 for city services. Currently, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline uses a 10-digit number, 800-273-TALK (8255). Callers are routed to one of 163 crisis centres, where counsellors answered 2.2 million calls last year.

A law last year required the FCC to study assigning a three-digit number for suicide prevention. The FCC said in a report that there is overwhelming support for a three-digit number because it would be easier for distressed people to get help.

Thursday’s vote starts the months-long process to make that happen. The next step is a comment period before the FCC moves to an order.

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. There were 45,000 deaths in 2016.

The new, shorter number would likely lead to more calls, which in turn would mean more expenses for crisis centres already struggling to keep up. If the number of calls to the hotline doubled, centres 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.

Mae Anderson, The Associated Press