Suicide prevention hotline bill inches closer to Trump’s desk

The bill comes as coronavirus causes more ‘deaths of despair’

Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., speaks with a staffer on Wednesday. Gardner, the main sponsor of a bill designating 9-8-8 cleared the Senate Wednesday.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., speaks with a staffer on Wednesday. Gardner, the main sponsor of a bill designating 9-8-8 cleared the Senate Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted May 14, 2020 at 10:14am

A bipartisan bill that would designate 988 as the national suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline number is closer to becoming law after the Senate approved it Wednesday evening.

The bill, passed by voice vote, is the culmination of one of the final legislative priorities of former Sen. Orrin G. Hatch. The Utah Republican pushed for a Federal Communications Commission study released earlier this year that identified the three-digit number to access the hotline, similar to 911 to report emergencies.

[Suicide prevention hotline to get three-digit phone number]

“This bipartisan bill to create a three-digit suicide hotline is now one step closer to becoming reality,” said Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., the bill's sponsor. “This three-digit number would make it easier for Americans dealing with a mental health crisis to receive life-saving support.”

The bill now heads to the House for approval before it can be cleared for President Donald Trump's signature.

Calls to the mental health crisis line in Colorado have spiked by 47 percent due in part to COVID-19, Gardner said in a news release. Roughly 60 percent of calls to the crisis line are related to the ongoing pandemic.

A recently released report by Well Being Trust, a foundation focused on mental health, said there was a growing epidemic of “deaths of despair” during the coronavirus pandemic and projected that as many as 75,000 more people will die from drug or alcohol misuse and suicide. About 1.4 million Americans had contracted the COVID-19 illness by Thursday and 84,119 deaths had been reported, according to Johns Hopkins University.

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Gardner introduced the legislation with Sens. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Jack Reed, D-R.I.

The Suicide Prevention Lifeline gives people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress free and confidential emotional support. The program was last authorized at $7.2 million a year through fiscal year 2021.

The easy-to-remember three-digit number will make it easier for those to access the Lifeline, which is available at 1-800-273-TALK. The Crisis Text Line is available by texting HOME to 741741. People calling 988 would also be able to access the Veterans Crisis Line for veteran-specific mental health support.

The bill is the result of an FCC report to Congress that studied a range of options for the dialing code, and it looked at why directing suicide hotline calls through the existing 9-1-1 infrastructure could be unworkable.