All Countries Should Have a 988 Suicide Emergency Number

If the coronavirus pandemic teaches us anything, it makes us conscious that people care about more things than money. The importance of health puts our work into perspective; only a bad risk manager would value revenue over lives. Not caring about people is also bad for business because active healthy customers do more and buy more. Our sector reacted energetically to the coronavirus outbreak; engineers kept networks running in difficult circumstances and data scientists found ways to track the spread of disease. Mental health matters just like physical health, and these are difficult times for millions suffering from anxiety and isolation. Those who avoid infection will not be immune to unemployment, bereavement and loneliness. Some will consequently suffer depression. Telcos need to be doing their best for the mental health of these people too. The USA recently instigated a simple improvement that other countries could copy: Americans who feel suicidal can dial 988 and be immediately put through to somebody who will listen to their worries and provide counsel.

Adopted by the US regulator in July, the new US suicide hotline rules…

…will apply to all telecommunications carriers as well as all interconnected and one-way Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service providers. They provide for a two-year transition, reflecting the real challenges of this nationwide effort, including the need for widespread network changes and providing time for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to prepare for the expected increase in the volume of calls. Under these rules, calls to 988 will be directed to 1-800-273-TALK, which will remain operational during the 988 transition and after it is completed. To ensure that calls to 988 reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, all covered providers will be required to implement 10-digit dialing in areas that both use seven digit dialing and use 988 as the first three numbers in seven-digit phone numbers.

Some countries have suicide hotlines already but it is vital that those in distress know how to obtain help when they need it. The benefits of a short, memorable and widely-publicized phone number are shown by the research conducted in the USA.

Establishing the easy-to-remember 988 as the “911” for suicide prevention and mental health services will make it easier for Americans in crisis to access the help they need and decrease the stigma surrounding suicide and mental health issues.

Altering the phone numbers would be a burden for telcos, but need not fundamentally change who provides suiciding counseling. The US plan only involves creating better, simpler routing of calls to mental health services that already exist. This also means those mental health providers need not spend precious money on advertising their phone numbers. In the US example, the existing ‘national’ suicide prevention service is actually a network of approximately 170 different crisis centers, separately maintained by a mixture of public and private funds in a variety of locations. What they have in common is wanting to be accessible to those who are suffering.

There are many readers of Commsrisk who know more about national dial plans and the management of phone numbers than I do. The introduction of a national 988-style suicide emergency number would involve work, but it would be worth it. Please read about the research performed in the USA, and argue that your country should follow their lead. We can save lives.

Eric Priezkalns
Eric Priezkalns
Eric is the Editor of Commsrisk. Look here for more about the history of Commsrisk and the role played by Eric.

Eric is also the Chief Executive of the Risk & Assurance Group (RAG), a global association of professionals working in risk management and business assurance for communications providers.

Previously Eric was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and he has worked with Cable & Wireless, T‑Mobile, Sky, Worldcom and other telcos. He was lead author of Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers, published by CRC Press. He is a qualified chartered accountant, with degrees in information systems, and in mathematics and philosophy.