When President Donald Trump signed a bill earlier this month that will lead to a national 3-digit number for suicide prevention and mental health services, a state senator who represents part of Tooele County shed a tear.
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline Implementation Act, sponsored Sen. Orrin Hatch and Congressman Chris Stewart, was signed by Trump on Aug. 14.
While sponsored by Hatch and Stewart, a 3-digit suicide hotline was a four-year dream for Utah state Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City. Thatcher represents Tooele City, East Erda, Pine Canyon, along with Magna and parts of West Valley City and West Jordan.
Introduced in the U.S. Senate in May 2017, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline Implementation Act asks the Federal Communications Commission and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to recommend the best national three-digit number for a national suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline.
It also asks them to examine the overall effectiveness of the current National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and Veterans Crisis Line, and to recommend ways to improve the current system.
The bill further asks the agencies to perform a cost and benefit analysis of using a three-digit dialing code for a hotline system.
Back in 2014, Thatcher brought attention to what he called “the biggest gaping hole in government services.”
“Nobody knows where to turn in a moment of crisis,” he said. “And how is that acceptable?”
Even the smallest child today knows to call 911 to get police, fire, or an ambulance, but grown adults have no idea where to turn for help with mental health and suicide, Thatcher said.
Thatcher’s research led him to find that the state had a patchwork network of 19 different numbers for suicide hotlines. Some numbers were not operated 24/7. When no one was available to answer, the caller to some hotlines reached a voicemail box.
Somebody, in the moment of a suicide crisis, getting a voicemail message when they reached out for help, was not acceptable to Thatcher.
Suicide and mental health were not only a statistical problem for Thatcher — suicide is one of the leading causes of death among teens in Utah and the state consistently ranks among the highest for overall number of suicide deaths — it was personal.
“I was 11 years old the first time I lost a classmate to suicide, and at the age of 16, I lost one of my closest friends,” he said. “Every Utahn has felt the impact of suicide. It is the single deadliest crisis facing our youth.”
In 2014, Thatcher prepared legislation to make 311, the only unassigned X11 number in Utah, a statewide 24/7 suicide hotline.
He was certain the bill would make it through the 2014 session, Thatcher said.
But it didn’t. Instead Thatcher had to settle for the creation of a commission that would talk about the issue.
A commission wasn’t what Thatcher originally wanted, but the commission led to the passing of legislation in 2015 that created the SafeUT app for smartphones. SafeUT is a free app that can be downloaded to cell phones. It can be used 24/7 to contact a trained counselor from the University of Utah’s Neuropsychiatric Institute.
“But not everybody that thinks about suicide is a teenager with a smartphone,” Thatcher said.
Thatcher tried to get legislation for a statewide 3-digit number for suicide passed during the 2016 state legislative session, but the legislation did not pass.
Frustrated, Thatcher turned to Hatch for advice.
“I told Hatch about my problem [with the hotline],” Thatcher said. “He told me, ‘you aren’t thinking big enough.”
Hatch introduced the National Suicide Prevention Hotline Implementation Act in May 2017 with Stewart as the House sponsor.
The act passed the Senate in Nov. 2017 and cleared the House earlier this month.
“The first time I heard of this [a bill for a 3-digit number for a suicide hotline] is when Sen. Dan Thatcher called me,” said Stewart, during a celebration of the passing of the act held on Aug. 21 at the Utah State Capitol.
While the act will not solve the problem of suicide, it will be an important tool. Whatever 3-digit number is settled on will become the 911 of suicide prevention and mental health services, according to Stewart.
“We can advertise it,” Stewart said. “People in a crisis will know to call.”
In a speech delivered on the floor of the U.S. Senate floor on Aug. 16, Hatch acknowledged the contributions of Thatcher, along with Stewart and Utah state Sen. Steve Eliason, R- Sandy, for helping to get the bill “across the finish line.”
Thatcher expressed his gratitude to Hatch and Stewart during the Aug. 21 celebration at the state Capitol.
“My congressman, Chris Stewart, and Sen. Orrin Hatch took this little Utah idea,” Thatcher said. “And instead of helping 3 million Utahns with what I was trying to do, they will change the lives of 300 million Americans.”