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What mandatory 10-digit dialing in some area codes means for mental health services

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

The recent change in four Florida area codes and 81 others in the country will give residents access to 988 for suicide help, similar to using 911 for other medical emergencies.

Local calls for four Florida area codes changed to 10-digit calling last month due to next year’s implantation of a three-digit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

On Oct. 24, calls in area codes 941 (Manatee, Sarasota, Charlotte counties), 561 (Palm Beach), 352 (Alachua) and 321 (Brevard, Seminole) began requiring 10 digits to make calls. The four Florida area codes, as well as 81 others in the U.S., have started the switch.

However, the change gives residents access to 988 for suicide help, just as using 911 for emergencies is available throughout the country.

The new national three-digit mental health crisis and suicide prevention hotline was formally designated by the Federal Communications Commission in July 2020. It goes live July 16.

“[The FCC] is using the 988 code as the number people can call to when they’re in crisis,” said Sakina Deas, public utilities analyst for the Florida Public Service Commission. “In any state in the United States where that prefix was being used, in order for the FCC to utilize that number, that area code would have to go into a 10-digit dialing situation.”

Ten-digit dialing requires the area code and telephone number. Now, local calls dialed in affect areas with only seven digits may not be completed.

Other changes that will be made, according to the North American Numbering Plan Administrator, include changing important safety and security equipment such as reprogramming medical alert devices, and alarm and security systems, to 10-digit dialing.

FCC spokesperson Paloma Perez says the agency hopes this new, shorter number will draw more people to call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline in times of crisis and for it to become as reflexive as dialing 911.

“Since 2008, suicide has been found to be the 10th leading cause of death for Americans across the country,” Perez said. “And in 2020 alone, we’ve lost 44,000 Americans to suicide. … We are doing our part in trying to be creative with the agency to put an end to this really disheartening trend. … That is what prompted the action.”

In summer 2020, the FCC developed rules based off a report that said people in crisis may benefit from having an easy, three-digit number that they can speak with someone who is trained to help them in some of their darkest moments.

Another element of the three-digit number would be the alleviation of stress on law enforcement and public health resources, as they often are not trained to deal with mental health crises. On average, over 600,000 calls per day are made to 911 in the United States; that’s over 240 million per year, according to Walden University.

A survey published Oct. 26 by Pew Charitable Trusts found that in over three dozen 911 call centers in 27 states, very few of the operators were trained to handle behavioral health crises or have a mental health professional to help them with response to said crises.

The addition of 988 will provide people in crisis with a line to call and immediately be connected to a trained mental health counselor who can address a distressed individual’s needs and send them to ongoing care.

“We were losing so many of our fellow friends, sisters, family members,” Perez said. “Folks who have lost someone close to them to suicide, so often we hear ‘I wish there was something I could do,’ or ‘I would have done anything to have them be at my next birthday or Thanksgiving.’ These changes that we’re implementing, or helping implement, are really meant to address the underlying issue and make it so Americans in crisis have less to think about in their moments when they’re in a lot of distress.”

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline will continue be reachable using the old number, 1-800-273-TALK (8255) even after the implementation of the new number July 16.