Even a good idea has its hurdles.
On Saturday, as a result of the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act, first introduced in 2019 and signed by former President Donald Trump in October 2020, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline went live across most of the country.
“This is a totally bipartisan bill and it’s an idea that seems so obvious people have said to me, ‘Gosh, you know, why wasn’t this done 20 years ago?’ and ‘Great idea, this must have been easy to get passed,’ but the truth of the matter is it remarkably difficult to get through Congress,” U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat who co-sponsored the legislation, told the Herald.
The 988 hotline, much like the 911 emergency system, is designed to be an easy-to-remember phone number which will give callers experiencing a mental health crisis or their loved ones the ability to connect with “rapid, free, trained, and confidential help.” It will direct veterans in need of mental health support directly to the veteran’s suicide hotline and services.
Three years ago it didn’t look like it would happen, Moulton said, despite widespread acknowledgement something needed to be done.
Back in 2019, before the pandemic had everyone thinking about their mental health, the first obstacle for the bill was a divided congress from which Moulton, a former Marine, said he would need to find co-sponsors.
He crossed the aisle and found one in fellow veteran and former Air Force pilot Rep. Chris Stewart, a Republican from Utah.
After that he needed to find two equally committed members of the Senate, and even after passing the bill, he had to get the Trump administration on board.
“We had to convince the White House, under Donald Trump, to sign it. This is a president who has accused the troops of being mentally weak,” Moulton said.
Even some of the veterans organizations fought the bill’s passage, the Massachusetts congressman told the Herald, with arguments flaring over what the number should be, or whether there should be more or less funding.
“There were all these issues behind the scenes that repeatedly threatened to scuttle the bill so it took a long time and a lot of hard work to get this done, but ultimately it’s a great bipartisan victory,” he said.
Moulton disclosed in 2019 that his own service had left him with PTSD, which he said is partly why he continued to push for the bill despite opposition: He knew veterans struggling with mental health and for years denied that he, too, needed to speak up and ask for some help.
“I’ve been in Congress for eight years, I’ve worked on a lot of bills. And I don’t think there is anything I’ve done that will save more lives than this,” he said.
There were nearly 50,000 deaths by suicide in the U.S. in 2020, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and more than 800,000 had taken their own lives in a 20-year span since 2000.
“Suicide is a tragic issue that hits home for everyone. It is a top 10 cause of death nationwide — as well as in my own home state — and the pandemic only intensified the problem. But the new 9-8-8 Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be our fresh start,” Utah’s Stewart said in a statement.
“This new option will save thousands of lives and steer thousands of people into more appropriate treatment, but the work is far from over,” he said.
Moulton said the hotline is the second part of a three-part plan. The first, already amended into 2019’s Defense Authorization Act, requires service members who see combat to be provided mental health checkups within two weeks of returning home.
The last will be the largest lift: removing the stigma around mental health.
“I want it to be as routine as getting an annual physical, getting a mental health check up,” Moulton said. “I’m just working to fulfill that promise that I made when I told my story publicly three years ago.”
Not every state has funded the program or put staff in place to handle the potential call volume, Moulton acknowledged.
“We know this isn’t going to be perfect on day one,” he said, “but it’s going to save thousands of lives as soon as it goes live and we are going to be continuing to work to make sure nobody falls through the cracks.”
Staff Photo By Stuart Cahill/MediaNews Group/Boston HeraldSalem, MA – July 13: Mass. Congressman Seth Moulton at his home in Salem on July 13, 2022 in , Salem, MA. (Staff Photo By Stuart Cahill/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)