Hatch, Stewart bill to create national 3-digit suicide prevention hotline goes to president

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill two Utah Republicans pushed to create a three-digit telephone number — similar to 911 — for the national suicide prevention hotline passed the U.S. House on Monday.

Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Chris Stewart were among lawmakers who introduced the bipartisan legislation in May 2017. It passed the Senate last November and sailed through the House on Monday, 379-1.

“There are many tools available for people who are struggling with mental illness or thoughts of suicide, but tragically some of these resources are too difficult to find in a time of urgent need,” Stewart said on the House floor.

The national suicide prevention hotline number — 800-273-TALK — is cumbersome and hard to remember, he said, adding most people have never heard of it.

Since handbag designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain took their own lives earlier this year, calls to the national hotline jumped 25 percent, he said.

“While the hotline number has increased access, I know we can do better and that’s the purpose of this bill,” Stewart said.

The bill aims to reform the suicide prevention lifeline system and Veterans Crisis Line by requiring the Federal Communications Commission — working with the Department of Health and Human Services, and Department of Veterans Affairs — to study the system and make recommendations to Congress on how to improve it.

Hatch said making the hotline more user-friendly would help save thousands of lives.

House Backs Suicide Hotline Bill; Could Lead to 3-Digit Dial Code

Rep. Chris Stewart is sponsoring legislation to streamline the suicide prevention hotline. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo.)

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is headed for an overhaul, with passage of a House bill Monday. The bipartisan proposal would move towards creating a new national three-digit dialing code — similar to 911 — to be used for a mental health crisis and suicide prevention hotline.

The House passed the bill by an overwhelming, 379-1, margin. Michigan Republican Justin Amash cast the lone nay vote against the bill, sponsored by Republican Rep. Chris Stewart of Utah.

The proposal would prompt the Federal Communications Commission to study and report on the feasibility of designating a new three-digit dialing code, in coordination with the Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services Departments. A National Suicide Prevention Lifeline currently exists, but supporters of the bill say that the long 1-800 number is difficult to remember in times of crisis.

“We all know by heart to dial 9-1-1 during an emergency. We have fate and confidence that somebody who can help will be on the line. It shouldn’t be any different for someone in a mental health crisis,” said Leonard Lance, R-N.J. in support of the bill.

The Senate passed a companion bill in November 2017, sponsored by Utah Republican Orrin G. Hatch.

“There are literally lives on the line here and leaving them on hold is not an option,” said Hatch in June, calling on the House to move quickly on their version of the bill.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. In Stewart and Hatch’s home state of Utah, young people are particularly vulnerable, and suicide is the leading cause of death among teens.

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

“This legislation will build upon the success of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to increase access to life-saving service while evaluating new and innovative ways to improve the current system,” said bill cosponsor Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas.