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It's time for Congress to establish a national mental health crisis number

It's time for Congress to establish a national mental health crisis number
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The success of 9-1-1, our nation’s emergency service hotline, is undeniable. In an instant, Americans can   reach police, fire and emergency services from anywhere in the country. It’s hard to fathom that before the adoption of 9-1-1, Americans had to dial the individual numbers to their local police station, fire department or EMT services in an emergency. 

Yet, for millions of Americans, this remains the reality during a mental health crisis. Crucial services, which can save lives, can be difficult to access because our nation does not have an easy-to-remember number to call for a mental health or suicide emergency.

As our nation’s leading behavioral health care providers and advocates, we are in strong support of the companion bills — H.R. 4194 and S. 2661 —to establish 9-8-8 as a national suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline 

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Suicide rates continue to rise

In the U.S., suicide rates have reached a 75-year high and suicide is now the 10th leading cause of death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2017, more than 47,000 Americans died by suicide and more than 1.4 million adults attempted suicide.

While suicide rates continue to increase, only 40 percent of the Americans with mental illness receive treatment according to a 2018 report from the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions

In response to this trend, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has recommended 9-8-8 serve as the suicide prevention hotline, citing that it “would likely make it easier for Americans in crisis to access potentially life-saving resources.” We couldn’t agree more. Millions of Americans would instantly benefit if mental health services could be accessed easily.  

For too long, our system for mental health crisis services has been underfunded and undervalued. The current responsibility for 9-1-1 to handle mental health and suicide crises creates confusion, unnecessary delays and insufficient responses during people’s most difficult moments.

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Establishing 9-8-8 as a separate, universal three-digit telephone number will reach those in need while simultaneously reducing the burden on 9-1-1 for mental health emergencies.  

Connecting a person in crisis with mental health care to address their immediate needs will also increase access to a continuum of care that can often feel out of reach for people with mental illness. A direct line to mental health professionals through a 3-digit number will provide unprecedented access to care and undoubtedly save lives. 

Increase access to mental health services

As a nation, we are making great strides to reduce the stigma around mental health, and the three-digit hotline will go a long way in supporting these efforts. 

Yet, as mental health care becomes more widely accepted, we still see the monumental hurdles that stand in the way of individuals and their families accessing timely care in times of crisis.

The enactment of the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act could change the way we deliver mental health care in this country. By establishing a national number for mental health and suicide crises, we come closer to a breakthrough to support those who may be in pain and on a journey toward a tragic outcome. 

The need for this hotline is especially critical in order to connect mental health services to at-risk and underserved populations, which are statistically more susceptible to suicide.

For instance, while suicide has become the second leading cause of death for people ages 10-34, the statistical disparity increases for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth as they are more than four times as likely to have attempted suicide than their peers, according to the CDC.

Additionally, a designated 3-digit number would increase access to mental health services for other at-risk groups with high volumes of attempted suicide, such as military veterans who are more than twice as likely to die by suicide than civilians, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Passage of this law would be a step in the right direction in providing immediate access to anyone, anytime, anywhere in debilitating emotional pain. As suicides are on the rise in nearly all demographics across the nation, a dedicated three-digit number for those experiencing a mental health crisis would be a landmark step for the field of mental health, making it easier to support those in pain and begin the journey toward hope and healing. It would transform access to care and ultimately save lives. 

It is time for Congress to move quickly to establish 9-8-8 and save lives from suicide and mental health crisis. We applaud Representatives Chris StewartChris StewartREAD: The Republicans who voted to challenge election results House Republicans who didn't sign onto the Texas lawsuit Atlanta Wendy's 911 call the night of Rayshard Brooks's death released MORE (R-Utah) and Seth MoultonSeth MoultonLawmakers want Pentagon, DOJ to punish current, former military members who participated in riot House chairman endorses Michele Flournoy for Biden's Pentagon chief Trump critic: I am not afraid of Trump MORE (D-Mass.) and Senators Cory GardnerCory GardnerOvernight Defense: Joint Chiefs denounce Capitol attack | Contractors halt donations after siege | 'QAnon Shaman' at Capitol is Navy vet Lobbying world Senate swears-in six new lawmakers as 117th Congress convenes MORE (R-Colo.), Tammy BaldwinTammy Suzanne BaldwinSeven Senate races to watch in 2022 Senate Democrats urge Google to improve ad policies to combat election disinformation Senate Democrats reelect Schumer as leader by acclamation  MORE (D-Wisc.), Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) Moran'I saw my life flash before my eyes': An oral history of the Capitol attack Electoral College fight splits GOP as opposition grows to election challenge Hillicon Valley: Texas, other states bring antitrust lawsuit against Google | Krebs emphasizes security of the election as senators butt heads | Twitter cracks down on coronavirus vaccine misinformation MORE (R-Kan.) and Jack ReedJack ReedCongress overrides Trump veto for the first time Biden calls for the nation to 'unite, heal and rebuild in 2021' Lawmakers share New Year's messages: 'Cheers to brighter days ahead' MORE (D-R.I.) for their bipartisan leadership on this critical mental health resource. 

David C. Guth, Jr. is the CEO of Centerstone, a not-for-profit organization that provides mental health care, addiction treatment and community education in Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Additional mental health advocacy organizations that have signed on to this article include Mental Health America, National Council for Behavioral Health, National Alliance for Mental Illness, The Trevor Project, American Association of Suicidology, RI International, and Behavioral Health Link.