Local and national suicide prevention advocates are praising a new federal law that designates 9-8-8 the national phone number for mental health emergencies, saying it will provide a critical resource that could help save lives.
The National Suicide Hotline Designation Act, introduced by Representative Seth Moulton, a Salem Democrat, calls for the three-digit number to be implemented nationwide by July 2022.
The law represents “the single-most important development to reduce suicide in America to date," said Chuck Ingoglia, president and chief executive of the National Council for Behavioral Health, in a statement from Moulton’s office.
President Trump signed the act into law on Saturday. The existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a 10-digit number — 1-800-273-TALK — and that will remain in effect until the new three-digit number is in place, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
“For the first time, a dedicated three-digit number will now be available for those experiencing a mental health crisis," Ingoglia said. “This is especially important in the wake of increased isolation, fear, grief, and substance use due to COVID-19.”
Samaritans of Merrimack Valley is in the final stages of becoming a call center for the national hot line, an official said Tuesday.
Deborah Helms, director of the suicide prevention group at the Lawrence-based organization, said the organization received additional calls early in the coronavirus pandemic from people struggling with quarantine and worried about getting sick.
“There was quite a while when this pandemic first hit and people were at home and trying to wrap their heads around what was going on, that we were getting more calls . . . and then it kind of leveled off,” she said, adding later. “I would say at least three-quarters of the people who call us now at least mention COVID, if not need to talk about it.”
After the new law takes effect, Helms said, her call center will “help more people, be able to answer more calls, and hopefully it’ll go a long way in destigmatizing suicide in particular, but mental health as well.”
She said she hopes 9-8-8 becomes as familiar a number to call for people seeking mental health help as 9-1-1 is for people to report public safety emergencies.
“I think it helps a lot in destigmatizing mental health and suicide,” she said. “I mean, let’s face it: Nobody thinks twice about 911. There’s no stigma attached to doing it. You’re reaching out for help, regardless of what kind it is. The same thing, we’re hoping, will happen with 988. They’ll eventually just see it as a quick way to get some immediate help for themselves or somebody they’re concerned about.”
Joe Weeks, public policy director for the Massachusetts Mental Health Counselors Association, said the law’s signing was “a significant step forward for mental health and overall personal safety.”
“We have needed something like this for a long time and it has been long overdue,” Weeks said in an e-mail, adding later, “It helps to simplify steps in personal emergency. Instead of having to memorize ten digit numbers for crisis intervention services or other treatment team members, 988 can be the quick bridge to bring services to the people who need them most in times of emergency.”
William Sharp, an associate professor of psychology at Northeastern University, said the law is “exciting as an attempt at destigmatizing and making access to mental health easier.”
“Any effort that makes access to mental health care easier (3 numbers versus 10) is a step in the right direction,” he said in an e-mail.
But Sharp, who also practices psychoanalysis out of a Brookline office, wasn’t sure the new number would change how society views those who struggle with mental health challenges.
“The stigma about mental illness in the US is rooted in a belief that mental suffering is somehow a result of moral/personality weakness or some medical defect,” he said. “These models of illness neglect social causes (COVID for example). Changing a number won’t change the minds of some people.”
Moulton on Tuesday called the hot line a “game changer” for people struggling with mental illness or suicidal thoughts.
“It is absolutely going to save lives,” Moulton said in a phone interview. “This is a game-changer for people, for loved ones who have mental health crises, because so many Americans just don’t know how to get help.”
The National Alliance on Mental Illness saw a 65 percent jump in e-mails and calls to its help line in March and April, according to Moulton’s office.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in August that suicidal ideation was up this year, with as many as a quarter of CDC study participants between ages 18 and 24 saying they had seriously considered suicide in the past month.
The CDC also reported that in 2018, the most recent year for which data are available, suicide was the second leading cause of death for young people ages 10 to 34, and there were more than two-and-a-half times as many suicides as homicides in the United States.
In August 2019 the Federal Communications Commission issued a report recommending the adoption of 9-8-8 as the national suicide prevention hotline.
All phone service providers must direct all 988 calls to the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by July 16, 2022, according to the FCC’s website.
Moulton, a Marine combat veteran who went public last year about his struggle with post-traumatic stress following his service in Iraq, said passing this bill was important to him personally, and he hopes it will help make it easier for veterans and non-veterans alike to seek help when they need it.
“The reality is that talking about this, normalizing it, making it so easy to understand how you get help that it becomes more natural to do so — that all contributes to ending the stigma around mental health and is another benefit of this legislation,” he said.