New law could lead to three-digit number for national suicide prevention line

Posted at 6:53 PM, Aug 15, 2018
and last updated 2018-08-15 22:07:18-04

HELENA – Montana suicide prevention advocates are praising a new federal law designed to improve access to a national crisis line.

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump signed the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act. The bill previously received nearly unanimous support in the U.S. House and Senate.

The law calls for the Federal Communications Commission, along with the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services and Veterans Affairs, to study whether it’s feasible to create a three-digit, easy-to-remember number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Currently, the Lifeline’s number is 1 (800) 273-8255. Anyone who calls nationwide will be directed to the closest of more than 150 local crisis centers to speak to a counselor. In Montana, the Lifeline network includes Voices of Hope in Great Falls and the Help Center in Bozeman.

Jess Hegstrom is an AmeriCorps VISTA member serving with East Helena Public Schools on suicide prevention, and also works with the East Helena Suicide Prevention and Awareness Coalition. She said creating a shorter number would make the Lifeline much more accessible, especially for people going through a crisis.

“Sometimes I even have to look at it to make sure that I have it right,” she said. “So if it’s just like 311 or 511 or 711, it’ll be easy.”

Hegstrom traveled to Washington, D.C., in June to advocate for the bill, along with Dorea Wilmoth and Jennifer Preble, leaders of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Montana chapter. She said the legislation offers key steps to moving forward.

“It shows that it’s a national priority for the U.S. to fight suicide,” she said.

Hegstrom said a shorter Lifeline number would help improve public awareness about its services. The line is available not only to people in need, but also to those concerned about a friend or family member.

“I think a lot of people don’t know the number,” said Hegstrom.

She also hopes, if more people use the Lifeline, it will reduce pressure on 911, and allow people to receive the more targeted services they need.

Hegstrom said Montana has consistently had one of the five highest suicide rates in the U.S. over the last 40 years. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it had the highest rate of any state in 2016, with 267 suicide deaths, a rate of 26 per 100,000 residents.