As President Donald Trump calls for more help for those with mental health issues in the wake of the Parkland high school shooting, Congress is considering a bill that would create a three-digit suicide and mental health hotline.
Introducing the legislation on the Senate floor in May, Sen. Orrin Hatch said constituents have told him that friends and family who've struggled with suicidal thoughts don't always know where to turn.
"To make matters worse, the national suicide hotline number, 1-800-273-TALK, is not an intuitive or easy number to remember, particularly for those experiencing a mental health emergency," the Utah Republican said.
Hatch gave the example of one young Utah woman who tried to call her counselor before her suicide -- but couldn't reach her.
"I believe that by making the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline system more user-friendly and accessible, we can save thousands of lives by helping people find the help they need when they need it most," he said.
Record increases in suicide rate
The suicide rate in the United States has seen sharp increases in recent years. It's now the 10th leading cause of death in the country, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Young people are particularly vulnerable: In Hatch's home state of Utah, suicide is the leading cause of death among teens.
The existing crisis phone line, and the crisis text line, is staffed by a mix of paid professionals and unpaid volunteers trained in crisis and suicide intervention. When people use it, the risk of suicide declines sharply, studies show. The confidential environment, the 24-hour accessibility, a caller's ability to hang up at any time and the person-centered care have helped its success, advocates say.
The bill would require the Federal Communications Commission to work with the Health and Human Services Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs to study the existing system, suggest ways to improve it -- and recommend a new three-digit number. The bill passed the Senate unanimously in November, and the House Energy and Commerce Committee is considering an identical bill with strong bipartisan support, according to its sponsors.
"Too many of us have experienced the tragic loss of life and heartbreak that results from suicide. Those who have experienced this tragedy have expressed to me that, while there are many resources for individuals experiencing a mental health crisis, it can be difficult to find these resources during a time of need," bill co-sponsor and Utah Republican Rep. Chris Stewart said.
"The National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act works to streamline and provide easy access to potentially life-saving resources."
Renewed attention on the current number has increased calls, according to program managers. Rapper Logic put 1-800-273-Talk in a song. After he performed it on MTV and while surrounded by survivors at the Grammy Awards in January, there was an immediate spike in calls.
Two million people called the crisis line in 2017, up from 1.5 million in 2016. In January, calls were up 60% from January 2017.
'We know it works'
"People want access to these lines. We have seen calls increase every year since they have been in operation, and this is an extraordinary time in which more people are reaching out for help, and we are very pleased with that because we know it works, but it does come with some challenges," said the Lifeline's executive director, John Draper.
The challenges, according to John Madigan, vice president of public policy at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, are funding and infrastructure. He hopes the new legislation will improve that quickly.
"What we have now is a critical nationwide system, but as you might imagine, it is being overwhelmed," Madigan said. When callers are able to connect, there is a 76% de-escalation in risk of suicide once they start talking and working collaboratively with counselors. But, he added, "picture the little boy with the finger in the dike."
Madigan thinks a budget for the civilian crisis line "needs to be ramped up substantially."
He agrees that a streamlined number would be a big improvement. "Three digits, if you are in crisis, would help. Everyone, even 1- and 2-year-olds, know to call 911" if there's an emergency.
"It's high time we make it as easy as possible to get help."