National Three-Digit Suicide Lifeline to Take Effect in 2022

Alicia Ault

October 20, 2020

Beginning in July 2022, Americans experiencing a mental health crisis will be able to dial 9-8-8 and be connected to the services and counselors at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

The number was finalized when President Donald J. Trump signed the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act on October 17. It completes what has been a multiyear effort by Republican and Democratic lawmakers to make it easier for individuals to reach out during mental health emergencies.

"When your house is on fire, you can get help by calling 9-1-1," noted Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA), a key sponsor of the legislation, in a statement. The new number "is a national step forward out of the shadows of stigma that prevent too many people from getting help and into a new era when mental health care is easy to get and normal to talk about," said Moulton, a combat veteran who has openly discussed his struggles with posttraumatic stress disorder.

The law requires the US Department of Health and Human Services to develop a strategy to provide access to specialized services for high-risk populations such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) youth, minorities, and people who live in rural areas.

"This law is a historic victory, as this is the first explicitly LGBTQ-inclusive bill to pass unanimously in history ― and 9-8-8 will undoubtedly save countless lives," said Sam Brinton, vice president of advocacy and government affairs for the Trevor Project, in a statement.

Brinton noted that the Trevor Project's 2020 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that 40% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past 12 months. "More than half of transgender and nonbinary youth having seriously considered it," Brinton said.

Robert Gebbia, CEO of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said in a statement, "This easy-to-remember number will increase public access to mental health and suicide prevention crisis resources, encourage help-seeking for individuals in need, and is a crucial entry point for establishing a continuum of crisis care."

Gabbia called for more funding for local crisis centers to "respond to what we expect will be an increased call volume and provide effective crisis services to those in need when 9-8-8 is made available in July 2022."

In 2017, then-Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and colleague Joe Donnelly (D-IN) pushed for a three-digit number for people having mental health crises. Their legislation passed in the Senate that fall and passed in the House in July 2018.

The bill directed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to submit a report to Congress that would include a recommended number, a cost-benefit analysis comparing the three-digit code to the current hotline, and an assessment of how much it might cost service providers, states, local towns, and cities.

Trump signed that bill in 2018. The FCC unanimously approved the 9-8-8 number in July 2020.

Until the new number is active in July 2022, those in crisis should continue to call the National Suicide Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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