These three numbers can save a life​

April 29, 2021

A man sitting at a table with his hand held to his face

​​When you're truly in the middle of a crisis, it's hard to remember anything, let alone a 10-digit phone number. That's why the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted rules in the summer of 2020 to establish a three-digit number that connects people in mental health crises to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The new phone number, 988, will be much easier to remember and dial quickly, getting help that much faster to anyone considering suicide.

The current National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number, 800-273-8255 (or 800-273-TALK) will remain in effect until July 16, 2022, at which point it will switch to 988. In the meantime, the FCC is requiring people in certain area codes to switch to 10-digit dialing by also including the area code for any local call.

At first glance, it may seem like the new Suicide Prevention Lifeline and local calls in certain area codes have nothing to do with each other. But phone numbers in some area codes – like 218 and 952 here in Minnesota – have 988 prefixes. Which means that, once 988 goes into effect as the emergency number for mental health crises, anyone starting a run-of-the-mill local phone call that begins with 988 without including the area code first, could end up accidentally reaching the National Suicide Hotline, thus possibly making it inaccessible to people who really need it. Using the area code before dialing any number with a 988 prefix will prevent accidental hotline calls and keep 988 available for those in need of immediate mental health crisis assistance.

This may take some getting used to for those who are accustomed to dialing only seven digits to make local phone calls, which is why this change is taking place in stages. Starting April 24, 10-digit dialing in the 218 and 952 area codes became possible, but if you accidentally dial seven digits instead of 10, your call will still go through.

You'll have six months to practice the dialing change, because starting Oct. 24, you must dial the area code plus the telephone number for any local call in the 218 or 952 area codes. If you only dial the seven-digit telephone number, you'll get a recording saying your call cannot be completed as dialed. In that case, you'll have to hang up and dial again, this time using the area code.

Keep in mind that if you encounter a suicidal or otherwise agitated person, you can use Text-to​-911 to report it. And you can still call 911 to get help in other emergencies—that won't change.

So if you have 218 or 952 area code, start practicing 10-digit dialing for local numbers now, so that you'll be in the habit by Oct. 24. And come next summer, rest assured if you or someone you're with experiences a mental health or suicide crises, you'll only have to remember three numbers – 988 – to get the help you need.