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  • Theresa Opeka / Carolina Journal

Tillis announces legislation to improve suicide and crisis lifeline



At a time when depression rates among adults and children are surging to record levels, federal officials are proposing a new system to route calls to the 9-8-8 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline faster to local call centers. US Sens. Thom Tillis, R-NC and Alex Padilla, D-CA, co-chairs of the bipartisan Senate Mental Health Caucus, along with US Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Xavier Becerra and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, announced the critical step on Friday.


Formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the service is made up of an expansive network of over 200 local and state–funded crisis contact centers located across the United States. Crisis counselors answer calls, chats, and texts from people in distress that the 988 Lifeline receives daily. 


Currently, calls to the hotline are routed by area code rather than by the caller’s location, but the new proposal would route the calls by the caller’s location instead.


The proposal contains provisions from the Local 9-8-8 Response Act of 2023, introduced by Tillis and Padilla, which would expedite the process of connecting 9-8-8 Lifeline callers with their nearest call center so they can receive appropriate care and resources from mental health professionals and local public safety officials as quickly as possible while protecting user privacy. 


“The 9-8-8 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline has been an important resource in connecting those in crisis with necessary care, and I’m excited about this next step to further improve the Lifeline,” said Tillis. “Ensuring callers are routed to crisis centers based on their geographic location as opposed to their device’s area code will allow for a quicker and more localized response for individuals in crisis and, as co-chair of the Senate Mental Health Caucus, I’m proud that this new capability will soon become a reality.”


Specifically, the legislation would improve access to and the accuracy of 9-8-8 response by:

  • Requiring the FCC to route calls based on the proximity of a caller to the call center, not their area code. The bill specifies that a caller’s specific location should not be revealed or discernible;

  • Instructing carriers to allow calls and texts to 9-8-8 even if their phone plan is inactive or the carrier is experiencing service interruptions or failures, just as they currently do for 911 calls; and by

  • Obligating multi-line systems like hotel and office phones to support the direct dialing of 9-8-8, rather than requiring a caller to dial 9 or another number before dialing 9-8-8.


According to a May Gallup report, more than one in six adults, or 18%, suffer from depression.

That’s a jump of more than seven points since 2015. Three in ten adults have been diagnosed with depression at some point in their lifetime, also a record.


Increases in depression in recent years may be associated with factors related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including loneliness and isolation, both for adults and children, and, most recently, ever-growing inflation, being divided politically across the country, and conflicts and wars across the world.


January 2023 Carolina Journal article showed that according to the latest available set of comparable data, North Carolina ranked 33rd in the nation in “deaths of despair” — that is, in the combined rates of suicides, fatal drug overdoses, and alcohol-induced deaths. In 2020, the age-adjusted rate was 55.5 deaths of despair per 100,000 residents, slightly higher than the national average of 54.8. From 2018 to 2020, our rate rose by 26%.


In addition, stats from a UNC-Chapel Hill initiative state that more than one in ten high school students in North Carolina attempted suicide in 2021, with even higher rates for students who identified as female (23%), black (14%), and LGBTQ+ (22%).


The numbers come from the 2023 Child Health Report Card, part of the newest initiative entitled “Our State, Our Wellbeing: Preventing Suicides in North Carolina.” This initiative comes from a partnership between Across Carolina 100 and the UNC Suicide Prevention Institute.


In 2023, more than 100,000 people died from fentanyl overdoses in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Over the past nine years, more than 13,000 North Carolinians have died from overdosing on the drug. 


Hundreds of North Carolinians have died this year from fentanyl.


There are also increases in suicides in the agriculture industry across the US and in North Carolina.

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