03:33 - Source: CNN
Unanswered calls at veterans suicide hotline

Editor’s Note: Carrie Sheffield, a conservative commentator, is the founder of Bold, a digital news network committed to bipartisan dialogue. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

Drowned out in the recent wall-to-wall coverage of political drama was a substantive development involving a lifeline that could help millions of people by preventing suicides and improving mental health treatment.

Carrie Sheffield

President Donald Trump signed the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act last week, legislation that requires the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to conduct a study to assess the feasibility of implementing a three-digit dialing code for a national suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline system.

It also requires them to evaluate the effectiveness of the current National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, including an assessment of resources for military veterans, who often face PTSD and other mental illnesses after combat.

Right now, the lifeline’s phone number is hard to remember (1-800-273-TALK) and moving to an easily-remembered code, akin to 911, could mean life or death for millions. The National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act specifies that the FCC must submit a report to Congress with a suggested dialing code and a cost-benefit analysis of switching to a three-digit number. I hope that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai recognizes the importance of a timely and robust analysis; his office has not released a statement to date on the new law. The FCC has one year to submit a report based on the study’s findings.

The need for such legislation is particularly apparent in the wake of the recent suicides of CNN’s Anthony Bourdain and designer Kate Spade, after which the US suicide prevention’s hotline saw a 25% spike in calls, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Suicide prevention is also particularly important to my home state of Utah, as the lead Republican sponsors of the law are Senator Orrin Hatch and Representative Chris Stewart. In 2014, Utah had the highest rate of mental illness (recent research shows this may be due in part to high altitudes), and many rural Western states have higher rates of suicide than Eastern, more urban states.

Governing magazine reports “it’s rural America that is sustaining the largest increases. The aggregate suicide rate for counties outside of metropolitan areas climbed about 14% over the five-year period ending in 2016. By comparison, the rate within metro areas also increased – but only by 8%. The largest metro areas, in particular, experienced relatively small increases compared to everywhere else.”

Tragically, I’ve had family and friends who committed suicide. I have struggled with depression due to family estrangement (I wrote about my struggle in The Washington Post), and thankfully was able to get the medical attention I needed to prevent a deeper unraveling.

Many, however, are not as fortunate. America’s suicide rates have risen nearly 30% since 1999, with the Center For Disease Control and Prevention reporting nearly 45,000 people committing suicide in the United States in 2016. What’s more, in 54% of suicide cases in 27 states in 2015, the deceased did not have a known mental health condition.

Many of these individuals suffer in silence. Meanwhile, our social media culture promulgates a glossy image of impossible perfection to which we are all supposed to aspire, and which may contribute to poor mental health and suicide for the fragile among us who strive to attain it. Unsurprisingly, cyberbullying and online gossip fuel a high-octane cycle of negative feedback that may be partly responsible for the spike in American suicides. And given the ever-increasing cyber-centric nature of the world, these sad statistics aren’t likely to taper off.

“The immediacy of social media makes it harder to process emotions and situations at a normal pace,” said Chloe Carmichael, a clinical physiologist from Manhattan. “Our executive (brain) lobe is inundated with social feedback that would normally take days or weeks to accrue in a normal ‘rumor mill’ situation. Needless to say, this literally overwhelms the emotional system because it’s more than we’re equipped to process in such a short period of time.”

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), the nation’s largest suicide prevention organization, understandably praised the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act as a step to help fight these troubling trends.

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    “We applaud the President for signing this important legislation into law,” said John Madigan, senior vice president of public policy at AFSP. “This new law will ultimately make it easier for Americans to access free and confidential emotional support if they are in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. … The lives of millions of Americans depend on the lifesaving services provided by the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.”

    With bipartisan support for the legislation, led by Democratic sponsors Senator Joe Donnelly from Indiana and Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson from Texas, policymakers have shown that saving lives is one issue around which they can come together in this age of polarization.