Beginning on Oct. 24, dialing a local number in Duluth and across northern Minnesota will require dialing our 218 area code, too. So, 10 taps on the keypad instead of the usual seven that we’ve grown accustomed to over decades.

While that tiny bit of extra effort and hassle might prompt some grumbling, the good, potentially life-saving reason behind the change ought to quiet any complaints. Ten-digit dialing in the 218 area code — and in 81 other area codes across the country (but not the 715 area code in Superior and northern Wisconsin) — makes possible the establishment of 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 connect callers to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline beginning on July 16.

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 stated in a statement to media outlets, including to the News Tribune Opinion page.

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 — like medical-monitoring devices, fax machines, internet dial-up numbers, alarm company contacts, and call forwarding and voicemail services.

The rules to establish the new 988 hotline were adopted by the Federal Communications Commission last July, following an appropriate public process, including public comments. The FCC urges 10-digit dialing starting April 24. On Oct. 24, it becomes mandatory.

Mental health is a growing concern — a "crisis," as the American Association of Suicidology has stated. 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.

In Duluth, the creation of a Mental Health Unit, consisting of two dedicated police officers and two embedded social workers, is making a positive difference. In 2019, Duluth Police reported, there were 31% fewer mental health calls as a result of the unit. The approach can be adopted by more communities.

During the past year, fears have been aplenty that suicides and mental health emergencies would climb as a result of the isolation, job losses, illness, and anxiety caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and its lockdowns. Thankfully, it hasn’t happened. Just last week, the CDC reported that suicides 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 too many.

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 remembering to dial an area code when making a local call or updating pre-programmed contact numbers.



AFFECTED AREA CODES

The coming requirement to dial the area code when making a local call affects 82 area codes in 36 states. The requirement goes into full effect on Oct. 25, but the FCC suggests starting on April 24.

IN MINNESOTA:

Area codes affected in Minnesota are 218 in the north, including Duluth, and 952 in the southwestern Twin Cities suburbs.

IN WISCONSIN:

Affected area codes in Wisconsin are 262 in suburban Milwaukee; 414 in the city of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County; 608 in the south-central and southwestern parts of the state, including Madison and La Crosse; and 920 in the northeast, including Green Bay and Oshkosh.