Since we were young, we've been ingrained to call 9-1-1 in the case of an emergency. From house fires, car accidents, to someone requiring immediate medical attention--dialing this three-digit number has become second nature. Cell phones, which weren't even around when 9-1-1 came into existence (1968, in case you were wondering) are now designed to allow anyone to dial 9-1-1, whether the phone is locked or not. We've made it incredibly easy, and that ease of access has saved countless lives.
Still, there is room for improvement -- especially when it comes to mental health emergencies. 911 is still the quickest and most well-known option. Yet, when it comes to suicide, do you know the National Suicide Prevention Hotline number off the top of your head? Neither did I; it's 1-800-273-8255, or 1-800-273-TALK. In reality, when life is crashing down around you, is it easier to recall a three digit number, or a 1-800 number?
Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner believes in the three digit number. Alongside Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Gardner sponsored the bipartisan bill, National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2019 (S. 2661) in October. Last week, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation unanimously approved this act. Additionally on Thursday, "the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) unanimously approved a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to designate 9-8-8 as the three-digit number for a national suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline," per a press release from Gardner's senatorial website.
These are incredible steps for several reasons. Not only will it make it easier for someone experiencing a mental health crisis to get the appropriate help they need when they need it, it will also help reduce the stigma surrounding mental health. Creating a mainstream helpline lets everyone in America know that 1) it's OK to not be OK, and 2) help is just a three digit call away.
The numbers alone demand this type of action. According to the United Health Foundation:
- The suicide rate increased 25.4% from 1999 to 2016, with increases occurring in every state, save for Nevada
- In 2017, there were an estimated 1.4 million suicide attempts and more than 47,000 deaths by suicide, making it the tenth leading cause of death in the United States
- In 2018, 21 of every 100,000 deaths in Colorado were by suicide--the national average is 13.9.
Senator Gardner stated in a Tweet on October 22:
"We must destigmatize access to mental health resources and prevent suicides in our country. Approximately every seven hours, a Coloradan dies by suicide. As the father of three young Coloradans, it breaks my heart to know that youth suicide rates have increased by 58 percent in the last three years. If this bipartisan idea becomes law, Americans could dial a three-digit phone number in times of any crisis: 9-1-1 for an emergency, and 9-8-8 for a mental health emergency. This legislation is more than smart policy that will help save lives, it's a statement that our government recognizes the crisis and is working across party lines to address it."
We can never do enough to bring help to those who in dire need, especially when it comes to mental health. Hopefully, once S. 2661 becomes law, it will pave the way for making emergency mental health care that much easier to access.
It will take time for this new number to come into effect, most likely 2021. The bill still has to pass the Senate and move through Congress to become law. Still, the fact that this bill exists and is gaining serious traction where it counts shows that suicide and mental health emergencies can no longer live in the shadows.
If you or a loved one is experiencing a mental health crisis, please seek help. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. In Colorado, you can call the Colorado Crisis Services hotline at 1-844-493-8255, or you can text the word "TALK" to 38255 to speak with a trained counselor or professional.
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