Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai wants the FCC to move forward with establishing 988 as the national emergency number for suicide, similar to how the 911 is used for other emergencies.

“The suicide rate in the United States is at its highest level since World War II, and designating 988 as the suicide prevention and mental health hotline would be a major boost for our nation’s suicide prevention efforts,” said Chairman Pai at an event last week.

The Chairman’s proposal — which will be voted on Dec. 12 — would designate 988 as the national 3-digit code. It would require that all phone companies transmit all calls to 988 to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which today provides suicide prevention assistance at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) and through online chats. The Lifeline is a national network of 163 crisis centers that is funded by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). In 2018, trained Lifeline counselors answered over 2.2 million calls and over 100,000 online chats. 

Although the Chairman’s initial outreach was aimed at veterans and other high-risk populations, “we know that many people in farm country are suffering, too,” notes Chandler Goule, CEO of the National Association of Wheat Growers. “I lost my older brother to suicide in 2012. It is by far the most difficult thing my family has endured. Had we as a nation had an emergency number like 988 maybe he would still be with us instead of the desperation he felt. Mental wellness is the root of most of the symptoms we see with addiction and depression. This is a huge step in the right direction and will be a huge resource for our family farmers, ranchers and veterinarians.”

During 2000—2016, the suicide rate among the U.S. working age population (persons aged 16—64 years) increased 34%, from 12.9 per 100,000 population to 17.3, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Suicide rates in rural areas appear to be growing, but the latest CDC date, which is based on 17 states from 2012-2015, places farmers as having the ninth-highest suicide rate among men.

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