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We need a ‘9-1-1’ for mental health — we need ‘9-8-8’

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I remember calling 9-1-1 as a child. I was maybe 10 years old when I saw a neighbor fall to the ground with chest pains. I leaped into action, picked up a phone, and called the number I had been taught to use in case of emergencies. Even at that early age, I knew dialing “9-1-1” could save a life.

I also remember the first time I called The Trevor Project. I was a scared college kid who wasn’t out to many people. I was having a really hard day and was overwhelmed by the feeling of being alone and rejected. At first, I didn’t know who to call. Thankfully, a good friend recommended I try a suicide prevention lifeline. I was grateful to learn there was somebody I could call who would accept me for who I was — part of the LGBTQ community. In a moment of profound vulnerability, I needed to know that the person on the other end of that call was safe for me to talk to.

Over 100,000 LGBTQ youth contact The Trevor Project in a year, but we know that is only a fraction of the young people in need. In fact, our research suggests that 1.8 million LGBTQ youth between the ages of 13 and 24 in the U.S. seriously consider suicide each year and could benefit from our services. And even that is a fraction of the number of Americans of all ages who may someday find themselves in need of LGBTQ-inclusive crisis intervention services.

Thankfully, since 2004, Americans have been able to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 to talk to trained counselors. In recent years, it has become common for people to post the National Lifeline number on social media after reports of a high-profile suicide, in hope of providing a friend with the tool they need to save a life. The number even inspired a Grammy-nominated song.

But it would be so much better if every American knew what number to call as instinctively as they know 9-1-1 —  and best of all for LGBTQ people if they always knew when they dialed that number that they would get the kind of specialized services and intentional welcome that I counted on receiving from The Trevor Project.

The United States is experiencing a mental health emergency, as physical distancing contributes to social isolation and economic strains stretch our national psyche to a breaking point. Despite the extraordinary efforts made by the medical professionals saving lives each and every day, it has never been clearer that our national mental health infrastructure requires reinforcement and innovation to meet the growing need. We need a “9-1-1” for mental health. We need “9-8-8.”

That’s where the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act comes in. First, the Act designates a simple three-digit number, 9-8-8, to eventually replace the current ten-digit number, 1-800-273-8255. It’s a simple change, but one with the potential to save millions of lives by making it easier to access life-saving services in a moment of crisis.

Second, the Act recognizes the need for these services to be specialized to save the most lives possible. The National Suicide Hotline Designation Act directly empowers the skilled and dedicated staff at the National Lifeline to take into account the distinct needs of those communities shown by scientific research to be at higher risk of suicide, including LGBTQ youth.

This legislation is commonsense and that is why it is succeeding. At a time of deep political polarization, when no other piece of LGBTQ-inclusive legislation has moved in the Senate, the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act was passed by the Senate unanimously. Americans can be glad to know that, at least on the issue of suicide prevention, bipartisanship is still possible. Sens. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) deserve our thanks for their leadership to find solutions in these difficult times.

To be clear, there will be a lengthy implementation process before people in crisis will be able to dial 9-8-8. Setting up helplines like this takes time and training. But at The Trevor Project, we are strongly encouraged by the progress we’ve made so far, not just in the Senate, but from the many conversations we’ve had with leaders at the Federal Communications Commission and Veterans Crisis Line.

The House of Representatives has technically passed this legislation as part of the latest COVID-19 relief bill, the HEROES Act. But as it is unclear that that version of the bill will pass in the Senate, we need the House to bring this bill directly to the floor for a vote. In the midst of one national emergency, we must take action to de-escalate another — and we’ll save lives doing it.

Sam Brinton is Trevor Project’s vice president of Advocacy and Government Affairs.

Tags 911 Cory Gardner LGBTQ Suicide Tammy Baldwin The Trevor Project

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