EDITORIAL: Mental health services line makes help more available

It’s hard to imagine life without the 911 emergency number, or how many lives have been saved since the three-digit calling system was implemented beginning in the late-1960s.

Patterned after the ATT 411 directory assistance number, 911 enabled people to access emergency dispatchers without having to learn or look up individual police, fire and other emergency numbers at times of crisis when any delay could be fatal.

The federal government is now developing a similar system for suicide prevention and other mental health issues. The Federal Communications Commission in December announced that it is creating a three-digit suicide and mental health crisis line.

The designated number, the FCC announced, will be 988.

We applaud the development; like 911, a short, easy-to-remember number could make it easier for people in crisis, or their friends or family members, to find help when it’s most needed. It reduces the possibility that a person might be

unable to A current hotline exists — 800-273-TALK (8255) — but it’s long and not easy to remember. A person could have difficulty finding the number and give up, rendering the search futile, and the frustration of the search could further fray a person’s psyche when the person is most vulnerable.

Making crisis calls easier is a vital goal. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in America, roughly double the homicide rate. In 2017, the latest year with complete data, 1.4 million suicide attempts were reported, with 47,173 deaths. It’s the second-leading cause of death in Texas for people ages 15-34.

On average, 129 suicides occur every day, and the high rate among military veterans, and increasingly active-duty military personnel, is well documented.

While those figures are high, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention considers the real numbers to be higher, since the stigma related to suicide coupled with inaccurate reporting probably lead to underreporting.

Certainly, 988 is short and should be easy to learn, but it isn’t notable enough to be easily remembered. However, the N11 system has been so successful,

and so popular, that all available numbers already are dedicated to other services; for example, 211 is reserved for community services and 311 is for local government services.

Funding is needed to bring the system into service, and legislation has been submitted in both the House and Senate. Unfortunately, the current contentious atmosphere in Washington, and the attention being diverted to President Trump’s impeachment, has stalled much legislation, even bills such as this that have bipartisan support.

We trust that lawmakers understand that delays could mean deaths, and recognize the need to enact the measures that will bring the system online as quickly as possible, and fund a publicity campaign that will help raise public awareness about the 988 number.