August 22, 2019

Let's Dial 988 to Stop Suicides

Originally published by The Washington Post.

By Chris Stewart and Seth Moulton

Chris Stewart, a Republican, represents Utah in the U.S. House of Representatives. Seth Moulton, a Democrat, represents Massachusetts in the House.

Nearly 1 in 5 American adults live with a mental-health condition; nearly half of those afflicted report having an unmet need for services. The suicide rate is increasing, too. In 2014, about 10 million Americans seriously considered suicide, and more than 1 million attempted it. These are our neighbors, our co-workers, family members, friends and loved ones.

Suicide will also kill an average of 20 American veterans daily. Even though veterans represent just 7 percent of the population, they are about 1½ times more likely to die from suicide than nonveterans. We are both veterans, so this hits especially close to home.

It is time to treat suicide like any other life-threatening emergency, and Congress should take the lead. We have joined forces across the aisle to start that conversation, and we believe this issue can unite Congress at a time when it is deeply divided.

We have made it our mission to secure a three-digit dialing code for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Right now, when an American is experiencing suicidal thoughts, help is more than just a three-digit phone call away. In many states, multiple government and nonprofit agencies provide overlapping services, and each entity has its own phone number. For example, people can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, but callers must search for and then dial 1-800-273-8255. That is one step too many in a crisis.

In August 2018, we took the first step. Congress passed the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act, which called for a study to determine the best dialing code for this purpose. Last week, the Federal Communications Commission released the report, recommending 988.

Armed with the facts, it is time for Congress to get to work. This week, we introduced the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act, which would let Americans experiencing a mental-health emergency dial 988 to immediately receive help.

Nothing haunts us more than the thought of someone dialing 988 only to hear endless ringing or an answering machine. Our bill empowers states to collect a small fee, similar to what is already in place for 911, to enhance and support local crisis call centers affiliated within the 988 national network. Last year, only 79 percent of all lifeline calls were answered in the state in which they were placed. In most cases, unanswered calls are rolled over to a neighboring state. But with an ever-rising call volume, this patchwork system is not sustainable.

We recognize that this legislation alone is not a panacea. We must also start talking to each other about mental-health care so that seeking help for everything from suicidal thoughts to addiction to depression is as routine as going to the doctor for a broken arm or an annual checkup.

In the meantime, this legislation could save lives. We stand united in joining our neighbors, co-workers, family members, friends and loved ones in doing our part to provide support and to restore hope to our communities.