On Tuesday, President Donald Trump signed a bill into law that is meant to address the United States' mental health epidemic — a crisis that affects everyone, while particularly affecting certain demographics. Co-sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT), the bill aims to improve the U.S. suicide prevention hotline, including by giving it a 3-digit national emergency number that's similar to 911.
"We now have the opportunity to make the National Suicide Prevention Hotline more accessible and easier to remember," Stewart said in a statement on Tuesday. "This new law truly has the ability to save lives."
The bill is basically a series of instructions for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and Federal Communications Commission (FCC). It mandates that these agencies analyze and recommend improvements to the current National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and Veterans Crisis Line. Most notably, it instructs the agencies to recommend a 3-digit number for a national mental health crisis and suicide hotline and to evaluate the financial feasibility of such a system.
The idea is similar to the concept behind the 911, which AT&T designated as an emergency number in 1968 and which the FCC finalized into law in 1999. According to the National Emergency Number Association, around 240 million 911 calls are made in the United States every year. The system saves lives constantly; David G. Simpson, a retired Navy admiral who worked at the FCC, called it "the most important number we know" in an op-ed for The Hill earlier this year. The text of the Hatch-Stewart bill notes that the idea for a 3-digit suicide hotline number is "based on the success" of 911.
The bill also notes that suicide rates in recent years have been higher than in the past three decades. It doesn't specifically reference how suicide affects certain demographics differently, but that's important, too. For example, a study from the National Center for Health Statistics published in June found that suicide is most common among men, but that rates are rising most rapidly among women. Between 2000 and 2016, there was a 21 percent increase for men and boys and a 50 percent increase for women and girls. The biggest rate of increase was among women between the ages of 45 and 64.
Nadine Kaslow of the American Psychological Association suggested that a potential reason for this change could be that stress levels for women have been rising in recent years. She noted that more women are the heads of single-parent households than ever before. "There's, sort of, stress everywhere," she told NPR. "They may not have time to take care of themselves, to be kind to themselves, to get the social support they need."
It's also well-known that suicide rates are higher than average among LGBTQ youth. A 2016 study from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that 14.8 percent of heterosexual students in grades 9-12, but 42.8 percent of LGB students in the same grades and 31.9 percent of those who were "not sure" of their sexuality, had seriously contemplated suicide.
Perhaps this new law will help address the United States' mental health crisis. "With this bill, we can prevent countless tragedies and help thousands of men and women get the help they so desperately need. I'm grateful this lifesaving proposal has been signed into law," Hatch said in a statement on Tuesday. "With this topic, my heart is both heavy and hopeful — heavy because suicide has already taken so many lives; hopeful because this legislation can turn the tide in the campaign against this epidemic."