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Mental Health Needs Its Own 3-Digit Hotline

At a young age, most people know to dial 9-1-1 in an emergency. For someone amid a mental health or suicide crisis, a phone number to dial for immediate help is not easy to recall. As a nation, we’re fortunate to have the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), which connects individuals with crisis services through a network of partners including Centerstone. However, this number might not be readily known, much less memorized, by many Americans.

With suicide rates up 33 percent since 1999 (National Center for Health Statistics), and suicide rates for U.S. teens and young adults the highest on record, a dedicated, easy-to-recall, three-digit hotline for mental health and suicide crises is more urgent than ever. Such a game-changing step would not only save lives, but also break down barriers associated with mental health stigma.

The National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act—signed into law Aug. 14, 2018—required the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to look at the potential of designating a three-digit dialing code (referred to as an N11 number, such as 5-1-1 or 6-1-1) for a national suicide prevention and mental health crisis phone system. The FCC’s deadline to report its recommendations to Congress is Aug. 14, 2019.

This line should be as widely understood and available as 9-1-1 is for medical emergencies. According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2017, suicide was the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34.

We must do all we can to halt and reverse this upward trend. Here are several more reasons why the FCC and Congress should urgently act to designate a N11 number solely for mental health and suicide crises.

Stop Unnecessary Delays

Unarguably, 9-1-1 is a ubiquitous part of our nation’s emergency response system, but 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.

Contacting a mental health and suicide prevention specialist, through a dedicated number begins a thoughtful, thorough process of care. It is in our nation’s public interest that people in distress rapidly obtain counsel and resources to guide them to an easy-to-access pathway to adequate care.

Alleviate Pressure on Overburdened Systems

According to Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project’s 2017 report, the rate of mental health/substance use related emergency room visits increased 44.1 percent from 2006 to 2014, with suicidal ideation growing the most.

Overcrowded emergency rooms not only are more costly for the patient and taxpayers; they’re also not always the best setting to address concerns related to mental illness or suicidal thoughts. It is time we implement better practices to improve service to individuals experiencing a mental health and suicide crisis.

Reduce Mental Health Stigma in Communities

Lastly, a national number for mental health crises could help reduce the deeply entrenched stigma associated with mental health conditions. As a nation, we are making strides to greatly reduce mental health stigma. However, in a crisis situation, there are still monumental hurdles that stand in the way of individuals and their families accessing timely care.

An endorsement of a three-digit N11 number for these situations by Congress and the FCC 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. Action is urgently needed. Visit centerstone.org/legislative to follow us on the journey of making this national service a reality.

Becky Stoll, vice president for crisis and disaster management for Centerstone, oversees Centerstone’s Crisis Services, including the 24-hour Crisis Call Center, Mobile Crisis Response Teams and Crisis Management Strategies.

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