3-digit suicide prevention hotline likely will have 'huge impact' in Berkshires

A law last year required the Federal Communications Commission 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.

NEW YORK — Federal regulators are setting up a new three-digit number to reach a suicide prevention hotline in order to make it easier to seek help and reduce the stigma associated with mental health.

Once it is 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, 800-273-8255 (TALK). Callers are routed to one of 163 crisis centers, where counselors answered 2.2 million calls last year.

"We think it's great. We think it will have a huge impact on suicide prevention," said Lee Watroba, president of the Berkshire Coalition for Suicide Prevention. "One of the things we know about suicide is that there is a short period of time when people in a crisis can get help. Anything that speeds up the time when people can get help is important."

A law last year required the Federal Communications Commission 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 monthslong 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 percent — in half of U.S. states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There were 45,000 deaths in 2016.

The report noted that from 1999 to 2016, suicide increased in every state except Nevada. It also noted that suicide rates are higher with at-risk populations, including veterans and the LGBTQ community.

'Particularly bad year'

Berkshire County has the highest rate of suicide in Massachusetts, according to the most recent suicide statistics released by the state Department of Public Health, in 2016, and it continues to have the highest rate, according to Watroba.

"It has seemed to be a particularly bad year, this year," she said.

Rural communities across the country tend to have higher rates of suicide than urban areas, and that can be attributed to a variety of reasons, according to Watroba and Dr. Jane Tillman of the Austen Riggs Center.

One factor, many believe, is that more residents of rural communities own guns.

"Firearms are used in over half of the suicides in this country, and rural areas have higher rates of gun ownership," Tillman said.

Another issue is the amount of time it can take to seek medical attention in a crisis.

"Access to care is an issue," Watroba added. "People can't get to the hospital quickly, so, having that number so people can come to them quickly is really important in a rural area like ours."

This week, Dr. Chris Barsotti of Berkshire Medical Center hosted a forum at the hospital to discuss how to prevent suicide in Berkshire County. Medical professionals from across the county attended.

The effort to set up the 988 number has received support on the federal level, and the FCC expects to see an increase in calls.

"More than 20 veterans die by suicide every day, and more than half a million LGBTQ youth will attempt suicide this year alone," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said. "A shorter, simpler suicide hotline number could be a game changer."

The new, shorter number likely would lead to more calls, which, in turn, would mean more expenses for crisis centers already struggling to keep up. If the number of calls to the hotline doubled, centers would need an extra $50 million a year to handle the increase, the FCC said, citing the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the federal agency that funds the hotline.

The FCC determined that it would be better to have a new number that is only for the hotline, rather than one that's currently used for other purposes, such as 911. Advocates say that having a dedicated number, along with a message that mental health is of equivalent importance as medical emergencies, could help reduce the stigma of calling the number.

"The three-digit number is really going to be a breakthrough in terms of reaching people in a crisis," said Dwight Holton, CEO of Lines for Life, a suicide prevention nonprofit. "No one is embarrassed to call 911 for a fire or an emergency. No one should be embarrassed to call 988 for a mental health emergency."

While the increase in calls might cost more, he said, it saves money in the long run because more people will be calling 988 instead of 911, which involves sending first responders and costs thousands of dollars.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, said people making calls because of suicidal thoughts often can be helped just by talking them through it, without needing to send a first responder.

Holton added that having first responders present doesn't always help people in crisis, because they aren't necessarily trained to deal with mental health issues.

Although 988 won't be available by text, there are other texting services available. Lines for Life offers a text service by texting 273TALK to 839863.

When Stephanie Adornetto, director of NAMI Berkshire County, learned of the effort to create the hotline, she sent out information to board members and staff, requesting that they reach out to their representatives in support of the move.

NAMI is an organization that provides advocacy around mental health issues and support for families in crisis.

"Mental illness happens in almost everyone's life. One in five people are affected by mental illness," Adornetto said. "When people are experiencing this crisis, they think it's only happening to them because there is this stigma."

Tillman, whose focus is psychology, psychoanalysis and suicide research, believes that the public education that will come with the creation of the hotline will be helpful to get messaging out to reduce the stigma.

"The suicide lifeline is one way to get help in an emergency," Tillman said, but there are many "points of entry to the system."

When individuals are suffering from mental illness or thoughts of suicide, they, or the loved ones who recognize the crisis, should reach out to friends, family, local organizations and medical professionals.

For students in schools, talking to school counselors is another way to seek help, she said.

Those who go to the Berkshire Medical Center emergency room can meet with a crisis team to get assistance.

While the effort to establish the 988 number proceeds, Watroba will continue to distribute items donning the 10-digit lifeline number.

This time of year, around the holidays and the months that follow, there tends to be an increase in the number of people who attempt to take their lives, Watroba said. In January and February, the rate of suicide increases, she said.

"People are vulnerable around the holidays. For people who are depressed, the holidays can be really difficult," Watroba said. "People should watch out for each other."

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at horecchio@berkshireeagle.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.