Congress passes bill to launch national suicide hotline as mental health concerns grow

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If it becomes law, the new emergency phone number dedicated to suicide prevention will go into effect in July 2022.

Congress is taking action to address growing concerns about Americans' mental health. On Monday, nearing the end of National Suicide Awareness Month, the House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill instituting a national suicide hotline number, as well as several other suicide prevention measures.

In a long-overdue move, the House passed the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act, a bipartisan effort spearheaded by Reps. Seth Moulton (D-MA) and Chris Stewart (R-UT) and, which amends the Communications Act of 1934 to assign "988" as a universal number to contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

The Senate passed the bill in mid-May, ahead of the house vote. It now awaits Donald Trump's signature, though the White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether Trump will sign the bill in the near future.

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The act would also require the Department of Health and Human Services to develop a strategy that specifically addresses LGBTQ individuals struggling with mental health, as well as a requirement that hotline counselors be trained in LGBTQ cultural competency.

The pandemic has hit the LGBTQ community especially hard. A Population Research in Identity and Disparities for Equality COVID impact study has found that LGBTQ individuals already struggle with higher rates of depression and anxiety than the general population — and the pandemic has made the situation worse. And a Trevor Project survey has found that that 40% of LGBTQ youth have considered suicide in the past year.

Besides the hotline bill, the House passed four other bills related to suicide prevention this week.

The Campaign to Prevent Suicide Act, introduced by Reps. Don Beyer (D-VA) and Greg Gianforte (R-MT), directs government health agencies to advertise the new "988" number as part of a national suicide prevention campaign. The number is slated to go into effect in July 2022.

The Suicide Prevention Act, introduced by Reps. Stewart and Doris Matsui (D-CA), authorizes several suicide prevention grants and allows the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to offer grants to local, tribal, and state health departments for self-harm and suicide surveillance in their communities. The act will also enable the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association to offer grants nationwide to hospital emergency rooms for suicide prevention programs among discharged patients.

The Suicide Prevention Lifeline Improvement Act, introduced by Reps. Beyer, John Katko (R-NY), and Grace Napolitano (D-CA), increases funding for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline program to $50 million a year through the end of fiscal year 2022, as well as a pilot program to explore new platforms for suicide prevention.

The final bill, the "Helping Emergency Responders Overcome Act of 2019," or HERO Act, directs the CDC to more closely monitor instances of suicide — and prevention options — among first responders.

The HERO Act also authorizes grants for peer support mental health programs in EMS and fire departments nationwide and mandates the implementation of best practice protocols for addressing PTSD.

In April, Dr. Lorna Breen — an emergency room doctor in Manhattan who witnessed the devastating toll of the virus firsthand — died by suicide.

"She was truly in the trenches of the front line," Breen's father, Dr. Philip C. Breen, told the New York Times. "Make sure she’s praised as a hero, because she was. She’s a casualty just as much as anyone else who has died."

Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone Jr., Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle, and Health Subcommittee Chairwoman Anna G. Eshoo issued a public statement Monday after the unanimous passage of the bills.

"Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, with more than 1.4 million American adults making at least one attempt each year," the statement read. "Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic creating profound distress and triggering depression for millions across the country, the House today passed five bills that collectively treat suicide like the public health emergency it is."

The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc not just on Americans' physical health, but their mental health as well. Many states have reported upticks in suicide hotline calls throughout the pandemic. Houston's Menninger Clinic, a nationally ranked psychiatric facility, recently reported more calls in the past month than in the last five years combined.

A recent CDC survey found that the number of U.S. adults who reported symptoms of anxiety and depression "increased considerably" between April and June of 2020 compared to the same time period in 2019. Over 40% of the survey respondents reported at least one "adverse mental or behavioral health condition," including symptoms of anxiety, depression, trauma, and increased substance use to cope with stress related to the pandemic.

The study also found that the rate of depression in the U.S. is at an all-time high, roughly four times what it was in June 2019. Over the same time period, twice as many U.S. adults who reported having "seriously considered suicide" in the 30 days before completing the survey, with the rate of suicidal ideation more than doubling from 4.3% in June 2019 to 10.7% in June 2020.

Suicidal ideation is significantly higher among young adults, essential workers, and people of color, according to the CDC. That includes 30.7% of unpaid caregivers for adults, 25.5% of young adults aged 18 to 24, 21.7% of essential workers, 18.6% of Latinx adults, and 15.1% of Black adults.

It's now up to Trump to decide whether he will help confront this crisis, or if he will continue to ignore Americans' cries for help.

If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or chat online with a crisis counselor.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.