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Proposed 3-digit suicide hotline could save lives, local advocates say

The Evening News and The Tribune - 11/18/2017

Nov. 18--SOUTHERN INDIANA -- Local advocates for a U.S. Senate bill that would introduce a three-digit suicide hotline number and take a closer look at suicide prevention efforts say anything that reduces barriers to help is a step in the right direction.

The National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act, co-sponsored by U.S. Sens. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, recently passed the U.S. Senate unanimously and is awaiting a vote in the House of Representatives.

It calls for the Federal Communications Commission to review current suicide prevention, including considering a three-digit suicide hotline number similar to 911, and working with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to determine how the current efforts best serve veterans and other populations.

The current National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is 1-800-273-TALK (8255). But Scott Ham, an Indiana veteran involved with veteran suicide awareness groups, including Challenge 22, said access to care is crucial to people in crisis, and he supports any efforts to improve it. He doesn't see any reason why a three-digit number like 911 for general emergencies or 411 for information can't be used.

"When someone is struggling, they're not always thinking the clearest," he said, adding that the time it takes to look up a crisis number can mean moments that could cost a person's life.

"If it's a realistic benefit and endeavor, why shouldn't we pursue it?"

Acclimating to civilian life after combat can present unique challenges to veterans, sometimes making them more vulnerable to suicide, Ham said. Some may exhibit signs of behavioral health issues that didn't show up before combat; others struggle with returning to life outside the combat zone.

"You do whatever you have to do to complete the mission and you're used to having so much situational awareness," he said. "What is that on the side of the road, what are those people's intentions?

"Then when you get home, it's hard to let down from that, and a lot of times your families, employers and civilians don't understand maybe what you've seen or done."

He said this can lead to veterans feeling misunderstood; it can lead to the dissolution of relationships and hits to their self-worth.

"That's when the evil thought of 'I don't have a task and purpose like I used to' [comes in,]" Ham said.

Ellen Kelley with LifeSpring Health Systems said the proposed three-digit helpline and other recent advancements not only add levels of critical access, but also help break down the stigma in which suicide has long been shrouded.

"This will be a way to shine a spotlight on the fact that the number is there, making it easy for everyone to remember," she said. "Over the centuries, we have misunderstood a lot of illnesses and I think this is the last one we have agreed to start talking about.

"Everyone knows that if you get cancer, you go to the cancer center ... your friends rally around you and go with you to treatment. And nothing is ever said like that about mental health issues. People say, 'I don't know what to do,' and separate it."

But any amount of awareness can work to break down these walls. While she said suicide numbers are on the rise, part of this may come from more accurate reporting in recent years.

"In the past there was an even greater stigma of suicide," Kelley said. "Coroners and police officers, to protect the family, would not rule something a suicide when it was.

"I think we're doing a better job of accepting suicide as death by depression rather than something to be ashamed of."

Breaking down the walls to crisis care means meeting people where they are. A new number just for texting was introduced in the past few years. Kelley said this can be a better chance to talk for younger people who maybe grew up texting instead of spending a lot of time talking on the phone.

People can text to "741741" and get in touch with a trained counselor from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

"Young people are using it," she said. "And this is not just suicide prevention -- it's any kind of crisis. So if they flunk a test or if their boyfriend breaks up with them, they can text this and then within five minutes get with a trained counselor.

"All of this is changing. All of this is evolving and improving."


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