The National Suicide Hotline Act is Now Law: What does it Mean?

John Draper, Ph.D., Executive Director, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Yesterday evening, the President signed into law The National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act, legislation that was introduced in the Senate by Senator Orrin Hatch and Representative Chris Stewart, both from Utah. The Act authorizes that a study be undertaken by SAMHSA, the VA and the FCC to explore the feasibility and impact of designating a 3 digit number (like 911, such as 611, etc.) for the Lifeline. The 3 digit number to be studied would be intended to assist persons with mental health and/or suicidal crises in the United States. The feasibility and impact study here will explore potential infrastructure needs to support such a service, resources needed to enhance its effectiveness, and the overall cost/benefits of such a service to public health and safety interests. The Act authorizes that the VA and SAMHSA independently collect data and information pertinent to the study over the next 6 months. In turn, each of these federal entities will file a report to the FCC in (or before) mid-February of 2019, and the FCC will continue to investigate the impact of such a service on communications systems and wireless carriers, as well as what 3 digit number should be recommended. On or before August 14th of 2019, the FCC will file a report to Congress, yielding recommendations compiled by SAMHSA, the VA and the FCC, for further actions. There are no appropriations tied to the current legislation.

Although this current legislation makes no promises for the Lifeline or our field, it still could be the most groundbreaking suicide prevention legislation for our country in years, perhaps having implications for the future at least as great as the Garret Lee Smith and Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Acts became laws over a decade ago. Just as those laws enjoyed unanimous bipartisan support, this Act has seen nearly the same level of agreement across party lines. Many of the Bill’s co-sponsors in the Halls of Congress acknowledged the importance of suicide prevention and the need to promote access via an “easy-to-remember” number. In any case, the study assures that suicide prevention and the need to provide adequate support and access to national, state and local crisis care systems — in ways that are both efficient and effective — will be a part of conversations in Congress in ways that we haven’t seen in years (if ever).

Some of you may remember a time when there was no 911, and callers experiencing immediate threats to their health or safety desperately dialed “0”, imploring the operator to “connect me with the police” or “an ambulance!” Now begins a national conversation that could lead to a 3-digit number for mental health and suicidal crises that could one day be as ubiquitous in our grandchildren’s minds as 911 is to our urban, suburban and rural communities today.

I want to thank the vision of legislators from Utah and the tireless advocacy efforts of the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention — among others — for helping this legislation to become a part of our changing national conversation about suicide prevention. Above all, I want to thank you and all of our national network of crisis centers, your heroic staffs and volunteers who have been answering the record-breaking volume of Lifeline calls over the past year (and many years). The data and information that will be collected by the VA and SAMHSA over the coming six months will surely bear testament to the collective strength and sacrifices that all of you have undertaken in service of people in crisis across this country. You and all of our centers have been collectively under-recognized and under-resourced for many years.

Many of you attended the Lifeline webinar which detailed our current challenges, our approaches to addressing them, and a proposed model for improving Lifeline’s network infrastructure to ensure sufficient network response to ongoing capacity demands. We also spoke briefly about the Hotline Act that was passed in Congress the day of the webinar, and is now signed into law. If you missed the webinar (or want to review it again), or wish to see our responses to FAQs offered from participants in the webinar, please click here.

The Lifeline and our team at Vibrant Emotional Health in NYC look forward to working with SAMHSA, the VA and the FCC to gather the information needed for Congress to seriously consider future actions to enhance efficient and effective access to care for people in mental health and suicidal crises. In September, we will be turning to all of you to complete a network survey that will help us understand and describe your individual center’s valuable efforts and needs, as well as the great work and collective needs of the network as a whole. Your information will be critical to providing SAMHSA with the data they need to make recommendations that will affect the future of this national public behavioral health safety net. These are interesting and important days for the field of crisis care and suicide prevention, indeed. As noted in the webinar, this may be among the most challenging times to be a member of the Lifeline network; yet, it may also be the best time to be a member of the Lifeline network. We are so fortunate to be working with all of you during this historic time.

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