988 mental health crisis calls could be directed based on location instead of area code.

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The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has initiated the process of implementing a new rule requiring telecommunications companies to direct 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 has submitted a notice of proposed rulemaking to the full commission, anticipating bipartisan support for the change and expecting the rule to pass a vote in the coming weeks.

Rosenworcel emphasized the importance of ensuring that when individuals reach out to 988 for assistance, they can be confident that the support they receive is local.

The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline offers free emotional support to individuals experiencing mental health crises and connects them to nearby resources. Currently, callers are routed to a call center based on their area code, rather than their physical location. For instance, someone with a New York area code calling from Los Angeles may be directed to a crisis call center in New York.

This new rule is seen as crucial for ensuring swift and safe access to mental health care for Americans. Sen. Alex Padilla, co-founder of the Senate Mental Health Caucus, emphasized the importance of the rule change in a news conference.

Hannah Wesolowski, chief advocacy officer of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), highlighted that many individuals retain their old phone numbers when relocating, making their area code an inaccurate reflection of their location.

Wesolowski emphasized the need for federal enforcement to ensure the full potential of 988 is realized. NAMI, along with other organizations, has urged the FCC and the US Department of Health and Human Services to take action to improve the routing of 988 calls.

The 988 lifeline, launched in July 2022, has received approximately 9.1 million calls, texts, and chats since its inception. It has expanded to offer services in Spanish and American Sign Language, along with specialized crisis lines for veterans and LGBTQ+ youth and young adults.

Efforts to improve crisis services, including the 988 lifeline, have received significant investment from the Biden-Harris administration, reflecting the urgency of addressing mental health challenges in the United States.

With suicide rates reaching record highs and widespread recognition of a mental health crisis, stakeholders emphasize the importance of making mental health resources accessible to all individuals across the country.

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