One innovation we don’t often think about but that’s become part of the very fabric of our lives is our ability to dial 911 when we have an emergency. It’s impossible to know how many lives have been saved because of 911, but the number is surely in the hundreds of millions.
The nation’s 911 system comes to mind because in recent days, here in New Jersey and across the nation, we now have the ability to dial 988 for the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. This innovation has been some time in the making. Back in pre-pandemic August 2019, which seems a lifetime ago, the FCC got together with the Department of Veterans Affairs and SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) and pushed for using 988 as the three-digit code for a National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
This got vetted through the North American Numbering Council or NANC, which didn’t exist when the nation’s 911 system came into being in 1968. Back then, AT&T and the FCC got under the hood to make 911 possible but it took time to get 911 to every corner of the country. Only 17 percent of the nation’s population could dial 911 in 1976, a number that jumped to 50 percent by 1987; today 98.9 percent of the U.S population can access 911.
The expectation is that the 988 National Suicide Prevention Hotline will be implemented and available more quickly because of today’s communications technology. This matters for us here in New Jersey because according to Barbara Johnson of the Mental Health Association of New Jersey, the Garden State had more than 600 suicides in 2020. She added that some 200,000 people per year are vulnerable to suicide.
The other benefit of having a 988 National Suicide Prevention Hotline is the ability to more easily distinguish between a mental health crisis requiring the intervention of mental health professionals and something requiring the intervention of police. We will never know the number of people who have been killed by law enforcement not because they had criminal intent, but because they had a mental health crisis that looked scary and dangerous.
That’s not a blanket criticism of law enforcement. Just as the field of psychiatry has gotten more nuanced and complicated, so has the work of policing. Throw in the fact that as a society, we’ve chosen to warehouse in our prisons so many of those struggling with mental health and drug abuse issues, and we shouldn’t be surprised when the assumption is that mental health crises and criminality are one and the same thing.
If anything, the creation of 988 National Suicide Prevention Hotline might be an opportunity to do a little triage before sending police to a scene. It might also be the jumping off point for creating mental health response teams, virtually or in person, that can assist police with deescalating situations that could easily lead to suicide by cop.
Another aspect to the 988 National Suicide Prevention Hotline is the attention it can give to veterans. For veterans in crisis, they can 988 and press “1” and connect directly to the Veterans Crisis Lifeline. It often takes a veteran to help a veteran and we owe that to our men and women who have served our nation.
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is here not a moment too soon, as we live in unbelievably stressful times. Despite modern technology and communications, people seem more segmented and isolated than ever and that’s precisely why we need 988.