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Minnesota Opinion: Dialing the area code can save lives

Dialing the area code, too, for local calls, makes possible a new 988 suicide prevention hotline.

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Even if it was downplayed and not explained very well by the telecommunications company that made the announcement last week, be assured that there is a very good, even lifesaving, reason behind the new requirement in west central Minnesota to dial 10 digits instead of the usual seven when making local calls.

That tiny bit of extra effort and hassle — the requirement to add the area code , even when dialing a local number — has this unquestioned benefit: It helps make possible a new “ 988 ” emergency hotline number for suicide prevention and mental health crises.

Like dialing 911 connects callers to a dispatcher in an emergency like a crime or fire, dialing 988 will soon connect callers to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline .

The new emergency number has been long-needed.

"We have known for a long time that the 911 system in the United States is not the ideal location to handle calls for mental health emergencies and requests for assistance," Becky Stoll, chairwoman of the Crisis Center Division at the American Association of Suicidology in Washington, D.C., said in a statement in 2019.

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"(The association) is in full support of … a suicide-prevention number exclusive to this purpose," Stoll, a licensed clinical social worker, further said in a statement to media outlets.

All Americans can be in full support. Few of us dial phone numbers anymore anyway, opting instead to simply click on a name or a contact's picture glowing from the screen on our smartphones. In addition to getting accustomed to 10-digit dialing, we'll need to check and update pre-programmed numbers in our smartphones and elsewhere. Our contacts, but also things such as medical-monitoring devices, fax machines, internet dialup numbers, alarm company contacts, and call forwarding and voicemail services will all need attention.

A few moments updating contact information is worth the lives the new hotline number can save.

The rules to establish the suicide hotline were adopted by the Federal Communications Commission in July 2020, following an appropriate public process, including public comments. The requirement for 10-digit dialing becomes mandatory in just a few weeks, on Oct. 24. Preparing now is paramount to avoid a recorded message telling you a call could not be completed as dialed.

This was why, last week, TDA Telecom of Madison, Wisconsin, issued a statement that, unfortunately, focused on the hassle of updating our phones and not on the benefit of the new hotline, which is to go into effect July 16. Until then, anyone suicidal or in a mental health crisis should continue to reach the Lifeline by dialing 1-800-273-TALK. For emergencies that require an immediate response from police, fire, or ambulance, continue dialing 911, as TDA Telecom said.

Mental health is a growing concern — a "crisis," as the American Association of Suicidology has said. Suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death and second-leading cause of death for those under 25, the association reported pre-pandemic, in 2019. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2016, there were almost 45,000 suicides in the U.S., up from about 30,000 in 1999.

During the pandemic, fears have been aplenty that suicides and mental health emergencies would climb as a result of the isolation, job losses, illness and anxiety. Thankfully, it hasn't happened. In April, the CDC reported that suicides actually dropped 5.6% from 2019 to 2020. Last year's 44,384 were the fewest in the U.S. since 2015.

But they were still nearly 45,000 suicides too many.

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A 988 hotline number, similar to dialing 911, promises to save lives and bring down that toll. That makes it more than worth the minor inconvenience of reprogramming and updating our contacts and phones — or remembering to also dial an area code when making a local call. That’s what demands to be played up and accurately explained.

This Minnesota Opinion editorial is the opinion of the editorial board of our sister publication, the Duluth News Tribune.

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