Hotlines Are Only a Start in Meeting Urgent American Mental Health Needs

The government is rolling out a three-digit suicide prevention hotline—a valuable, accessible resource that's only one piece of the puzzle.
December 13, 2019, 9:42pm
mental health care, suicide rates, statistics, data, emergency room visits

Although suicide rates were stable from 2000 to 2007, the numbers began to rise dramatically in 2007, nearly tripling by the end of 2017. In an effort to improve suicide prevention care and response and making it easier for those in need to get help when they need it, the federal government has announced plans to set up a new three-digit suicide prevention hotline, the Associated Press reported on Thursday. The 988 hotline will be similar to 911 but will instead will connect callers to a counselor who can provide immediate help. Other hotlines currently in operation use a cumbersome 10-digit number, like the National Suicide Prevention hotline (1-800-273-8255).

Suicide is a “serious public health problem,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., and it was the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 24 in 2017. Indigenous, LGBTQ+, and non-Latinx white Americans are disproportionately likely to die this way, as are veterans.

Actual mental health infrastructure barely exists: Over 40 million adults in the U.S. experience mental illness in a given year, yet the number of mental health professionals aren’t there to meet their needs. Over the next seven years, the National Council for Behavioral Health expects the number of providers will shrink to between 6,100 and 15,600.

One in eight emergency room visits has to do with behavioral health, because people don’t know where to turn to seek appropriate treatment. Private businesses have swooped in to exploit the situation for profit. Only about two-thirds of counties in the U.S. have at least one mental health facility that provides outpatient treatment for young people, and in rural parts of the country, it’s less than half.

Easy access to support care is one of the many known protective factors to suicide prevention. Effective, accessible clinical care, including for substance abuse, is another major factor. Thanks to the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 and the Affordable Care Act of 2010, health plans are required by law to cover mental health services, and these requirements were extended to Medicaid in 2016. Still, that hasn’t stopped insurance companies from trying to find ways of withholding mental health coverage or set up coverage limits, say patient advocates.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, help is available. Call 1-800-273-8255 to speak with someone now or text START to 741741 to message with the Crisis Text Line.

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