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Bill To Simplify National Suicide Hotline Could Bring Challenges

Suicide prevention sign on the east sidewalk of the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California. The sign reads
Guillaume Paumier www.gpaumier.org
Suicide prevention sign on the east sidewalk of the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California. The sign reads

A bill moving through Congress aims to simplify the national suicide hotline — a move that advocates say is necessary. But with that could come an increased call volume at crisis centers, and those same advocates caution additional funding will be needed to handle all the calls at money-strapped crisis centers.

Right now, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is clunky: 1-800-273-TALK. If the bill becomes law, it would change the number to a three-digit dialing code, like what's used for 911 or 311.

The national hotline feeds into around 160 local crisis centers across the country. One of those crisis centers is at Louisville-based community mental health center Centerstone. Here, around 300 calls a month come into the suicide crisis hotline from across Kentucky and southern Indiana.

Geneva Robinson, who leads the crisis center, said simplifying the hotline number could help prevent suicides, and anything that could prevent suicides is a good thing. But she's also worried.

“If you continue to increase the volume of calls coming in without increasing the amount of resources there to answer those calls, that’s not a good situation,” Robinson said.

The Senate passed the bill earlier this month, but didn’t attach any money to it to pay for increased staff to answer calls. An analysis by the Congressional Budget Office found there would be no increase in spending as a result of simplifying the suicide hotline number. The only spending would come from analyzing the current hotline system and determining how feasible it is to create a three-number hotline.

Stretched Resources, Limited Funding

Robinson’s hotline doesn’t just answer calls from the suicide hotline. It also answers a general mental health resource number, and Kentucky’s child abuse tip line. Even though the calls to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline get bumped to the front of Centerstone's line, around 40,000 calls a year to the non-profit's hotlines are not answered. Robinson worries about those unanswered calls.

“Not all of those [calls] of course are suicidal, but you don’t know,” Robinson said.

Calls from people struggling with suicidal thoughts — or who have already taken action — can last from 45 minutes to more than an hour. At the end of each of these calls, hotline workers try to link the caller with a local resource like a mental health treatment center. But there’s already waiting lists for these places.

“We’ve helped them in a sense, but have we really? There needs to be more that goes along with it to have it really make sense,” Robinson said.

But there’s another potential upside to making the suicide hotline number easier to remember: a three-number hotline could divert calls away from 911. Often, 911 dispatchers aren’t trained in mental health services, which means they aren't equipped to handle calls from people struggling with suicidal thoughts.

But Dan Reidenberg, executive director of suicide prevention nonprofit SAVE, said suicide hotline workers are better trained to deal with those issues. But with that comes another issue — how a caller would know the difference between a mental health crisis and a crisis that needs 911.

“There’d have to be an enormous marketing effort to differentiate a mental health crisis from another type of crisis," Reidenberg said. “When you’re in crisis and you’re worried about something, you focus on one thing.”

The bill is currently referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, in addition to the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.

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