On Wednesday, a national three-digit suicide prevention hotline moved a step closer to being a phone call away. A new bipartisan bill was introduced by Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) to designate 9-8-8 as the number to dial to reach the suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline.
The National Suicide Hotline Designation Act would direct the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to set aside the digits 9-8-8 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The current 24-hour hotline is a 10-digit number: 1-800-273-8255.
“I am working to protect the mental health services people have and to expand our investment in more resources,” said Baldwin. The bill would also allow states to collect fees for local call centers to ensure they can handle any increased volume.
“In America, we lose about 45,000 people every year to suicide, including more than 6,100 veterans, making it one of the leading causes of death in this country,” said Baldwin in a release. “We need to do everything we can to prevent suicide and that means improving the tools we have to help people who are suffering from depression or other mental health issues.”
Baldwin has been hearing from Wisconsinites on mental health and suicide prevention issues with increased regularity, particularly at schools, with veterans and in discussions with constituents on the Affordable Care Act and the opioid and meth epidemics.
This follows legislation Baldwin worked on previously to improve the hotline, which was signed into law in 2018. Since that time, the FCC and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration have evaluated the potential of a 3-digit dialing code for the national hotline.
Joining Baldwin in introducing the current bill are Cory Gardner (R-CO), Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Jack Reed (D-RI). It has broad support from mental-health advocacy and medical groups.
“If you are in a car accident, you don’t have to remember a 7-digit number to get immediate help – a mental health emergency should be no different,” said National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Acting CEO Angela Kimball. “That’s why NAMI supports … a bill that would establish a 3-digit, easy to remember universal number for those seeking help during a mental health crisis and for suicide prevention. The creation of a nationwide ‘988’ number could mean the difference between life and death by diverting people from the criminal justice system and instead get them the right care when they need it most.”
The FCC put out a report in August, recommending the 3-digit line and the number 9-8-8. This line would also provide access to the Veterans Crisis Line for veteran-specific mental health support.
Last year, Baldwin pushed to to ensure that provisions she authored tied to improving mental health for farmers were included in the 2018 Farm Bill. These included funding for local mental health resources and stress-reduction strategies for people who work in agriculture. At the time she cited increasing crises on farms and the need to ensure “farmers know they are not alone and there are resources available to help them find a path through tough times.”