A Latino man in a suit in front of the US and California flags

Change to 988 Crisis Hotline Would Route Calls to Closer Call Centers

A Latino man in a suit in front of the US and California flags

Sen. Alex Padilla, D-California, along with North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, on Thursday announced a proposed change to the 988 crisis hotline. (Office of Senator Alex Padilla via Bay City News)

By Thomas Hughes
Bay City News

A rule proposed by the Federal Communications Commission aims to make the national 988 suicide hotline more efficient by connecting a caller to the closest local resources, rather than crisis centers in the phone’s home area code.

The suicide and mental health crisis hotline, known as the 988 Lifeline, currently sends calls to emergency centers based in the phone’s registered area code. The rule proposed by the FCC’s chair would require phone companies to determine where the call originated, and route it to the nearest help, based on the phone’s geolocation.

For example, a caller whose phone has a 212-area code is now connected to a crisis center in New York City, even if the call is placed in San Francisco.

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The proposal was announced in Washington on Thursday by U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, a California Democrat, and U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, co-chairs of the Senate Mental Health Caucus. The two introduced a bill last year that would incorporate the change into federal law. It is currently in committee.

“By working to route calls to a caller’s actual location, rather than by the phone’s area code, we’re going to be in a position to be able to provide care as quickly and as safely as possible,” Padilla said.

Tillis said improving the hotline would help veterans, a group that has experienced high numbers of suicides in recent years.

“This can make an enormous difference for thousands of people when they’re in crisis, getting help from not only their family but professionals that are prepared to actually deescalate and then get them the continuum of care that so many of them need,” Tillis said.

Male veterans have about a 43% higher suicide rate than non-veteran U.S. males. For female veterans, the rate is about 166% percent higher than the general female population, according to a 2023 report from the Veteran’s Administration that cited age-adjusted data from 2021.

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The two senators were joined by FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and U.S. Rep. Tony Cardenas, a California Democrat who has introduced a related bill in the House.

Rosenworcel said millions of people around the nation use mobile phones with different area codes than where they are calling from.

“This is worth the fight, it’s worth working on the technology, it’s worth making more mental health resources available to more people everywhere in this country, and that’s what this initiative is about,” Rosenworcel said.

More than 8.5 million people have used the 988 hotline, according to Becerra. He said the proposed change could help millions of people connect more quickly with local help.

“It is indispensable, in some cases lifesaving, to have access to a caregiver virtually immediately as you’re making that call,” he said.

The full FCC must still vote to formally consider the rule change, which would then open the matter for public comment before a final vote would be considered.

Rosenworcel said the first vote could come in the next few weeks.

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