988 mental health crisis calls may soon be routed based on location rather than area code

The US Federal Communications Commission has taken the first step toward adopting a rule that would require telecommunications companies to route calls to the 988 suicide and crisis lifeline based on the caller’s physical location rather than their phone number’s area code.

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said she has submitted a notice of proposed rulemaking to the full commission and expects the rule to pass a vote in the next several weeks, given bipartisan support for the change.

“When people reach out to 988 for help, they should have confidence that the support they receive is local,” she said in a news release.

The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline provides free emotional support to people in mental health crises and connects them to local resources. The line operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and comprises over 200 local crisis centers across the country.

However, callers are currently routed to a call center based on area code rather than physical location. For instance, someone based in Los Angeles who has a cell phone number with a New York area code would be routed to a crisis call center in New York.

The new FCC rule is crucial to ensuring that Americans can access mental health care as quickly and as safely as possible, Sen. Alex Padilla, co-founder of the Senate Mental Health Caucus, said at a news conference Thursday with other caucus members, the FCC and the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Hannah Wesolowski, chief advocacy officer of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), said that most people keep their old phone number when they relocate, so their area code does not accurately reflect their location.

“988 will not reach its full potential unless every help seeker is able to get immediate help and be connected with resources available where they are. There’s been too much progress made with 988 to stop short of this ideal,” Wesolowski said in a news release.

The FCC has called on wireless carriers and industry associates to develop a better 988 georouting solution, but real change does not happen without federal enforcement, Wesolowski told CNN.

On Wednesday, NAMI and a coalition of over 40 national organizations sent a letter urging leadership at the FCC and HHS to take action to improve the routing of 988 calls.

“We are talking about life and death,” Wesolowski said in the release. “Everyone agrees with this policy and a workable solution exists. We just need our federal partners to act.”

The 988 lifeline launched in July 2022, transitioning from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to a broader focus and a simpler dial code. Since then, 988 has received about 9.1 million calls, texts and chats, according to data published by HHS’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Since its launch, the line has expanded to include services in Spanish and American sign language. It also has a special veterans crisis line, which can be reached by dialing 988 and pressing option 1, and a LGBTQ+ youth and young adult line that can be accessed by pressing option 3.

In January, the average speed of answer for calls was 32 seconds, and the average contact time was about 14 minutes, according to SAMHSA data.

The Biden-Harris administration has invested nearly $1 billion in the initiative. Much of that investment has gone directly to states, territories and tribes to hire crisis counselors and improve local response, according to HHS officials.

“There’s been such significant investment in 988 and crisis services over the last few years, this is really making sure that we are best leveraging those investments by getting people the best possible help at the time they need it most,” Wesolowski said.

Almost 50,000 people died by suicide in the United States in 2022, a record high, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s one death every 11 minutes.

About 90% of American adults say that the United States is experiencing a mental health crisis, according to a 2022 poll by CNN and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“This is worth the fight; it’s worth working on the technology; it’s worth making mental health resources accessible to more people everywhere in this country,” Rosenworcel said.

CNN’s Jacqueline Howard contributed to this report.

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