A National Mental Health Crissis Line

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission took the first steps toward approval of a three-digit dial code for a national suicide prevention hotline. When the hotline is set up, people will be able to call 988 from any phone in the United States to obtain help with a potential suicide. We have worked long and hard and written letters in support of this number. We do currently have a national suicide prevention hotline. It can be reached by dialing 1-800-273-TALK (8255). There is also a crisis text line that can be reached by texting “Hello” or “Start” to 741-741. These lines are staffed 24/7 by mental health professionals with specialized suicide prevention training. The lines exist for people who are thinking about suicide and for their loved ones who are seeking help for them. Immediate help is also available online. If you or someone you love is experiencing thoughts of suicide, click on this link: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat/

If approved, the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, organized by SAMSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration). The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is actually a network of 163 crisis centers spread across the United States. Last year alone, the lifeline responded to more than 2.2million calls and more than 100,000 online chats.

While the lifeline is important and undoubtedly has prevented suicides, it is only one part of a much more widely needed network of services for those who are suffering from mental illness. I have commented frequently in my journal about the lack of adequate health care for those who suffer from mental illness. Regular readers of my journal know it is a repeated topic and perhaps my become a bit bored with my repetition.

But situation is serious. And it is serious right here, friends. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US and it has increased by more than 33% in the past 20 years. Our state, South Dakota, is one of the most dangerous states for those suffering from mental illness. In the past 20 years, suicides have increase more than 40 percent in South Dakota and our county, Pennington, has led the state in death by suicide. Suicide can affect any age and any profession, but it is notable that it is now the leading cause of death among youth in our community and the leading cause of death among members of our military.

The national hotline for mental health issues will help. The vote at the FCC was unanimous. It deserves our support. The comment period is still open and you can express support by writing to the FCC at 445 12th Street SW, Washington, DC 20544. Comments can also be sent by email to Michelle.Sclater@fcc.gov. or Marilyn.Jones@fcc.gov. If you choose to comment, please urge the FCC to expand the proposed three digit number to accept text messaging. With suicide as a leading cause of death of teens and teens being most likely to communicate by text rather than voice, it is essential that they have immediate and easy access to mental health services. Although SAMSA will continue to operate its text line at 741-741, it would be most convenient if there were a single number to call.

Of course, for the system to work, it will take more than just a new phone number approved by the FCC. It took more than a decade of constant public education campaigns for the nation to learn and become comfortable with the 911 emergency call number. It will take time for our nation to learn the meaning of 988 and develop the trust to call. The network will need to be expanded to handle the call volume if the proposed change goes into effect. 911 calls are handled by more than 100,000 dispatchers working in 911 call centers. SAMSA has only 163 call centers operating at present. It will take years for the system to expand to cover the anticipated increase in calls. A proposal to combine the call centers with existing 911 call centers by increasing staffing and training for 911 dispatch centers is not currently feasible. 911 call centers are experiencing enormous volume, a shortage of workers, and are not in a position to take the additional call volume. Exactly how the SAMSA hotline will absorb the anticipated additional call volume of a 988 system is unclear, but it seems likely that the network needs to grow quickly.

The 988 number is, however, an important step and the FCC is to be congratulated for its approval of the number. For survivors of suicide and for suicide prevention workers, there aren’t too many days for celebration. The approval of the 988 system is a step worthy of recognition and celebration.

Those suffering from mental illness suffer in the midst of stigma and often are unaware that there is help available. Because obtaining mental health services is much more difficult that obtaining help with physical ailments, people sometimes assume that there is no help available and that their only option is to self-treat. Often this self-treatment involves abuse of addictive substances. Treatment of mental health and addiction go hand in hand, but not all of those who suffer from mental illnesses have addictions to substances.

As we work towards improving services for those who suffer, we can all help by being a bit more careful about how we speak of mental illness and suicide. People do not commit suicide in the sense that crimes are committed. That language comes from the days when suicide was a crime. I’ve stopped using the word commit when speaking about suicide. A person dies by suicide. A person dies of mental illness. One who dies by suicide doesn’t choose to die any more than a person who dives out of the window to escape a fire chooses to die by falling. A person who dies of suicide dies as the result of a fatal illness.

We’ve a long ways to go in this struggle. Learning 988 is an important step.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!