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Hatch, Stewart look to create national 3-digit suicide prevention hotline

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SALT LAKE CITY — The new Netflix show "13 Reasons Why" has put the often taboo subject of teen suicide in the public eye in recent weeks.

The controversial series has parents wondering whether they should let their children watch it. It also has been a catalyst for parents and teenagers to talk about suicide, which in Utah is the leading cause of death among 10- to 17-year-olds.

In fact, youth suicide has tripled in the state since 2007, according to the Utah Department of Health. Overall, a Utahn takes his or her life every 14 hours, an average of 557 deaths each year.

"Utah’s teenagers desperately need our help," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

Hatch and Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, along with Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, and Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., introduced legislation Wednesday intended to make it easier for people to reach help and treatment when they consider harming themselves, including creating a three-digit telephone number — similar to 911 — for the national suicide prevention hotline.

The proposal comes on the heels of a roundtable discussion Hatch held with community leaders, health care professionals, school principals and parents in December in Salt Lake City. May is also National Mental Health Awareness Month.

The bill aims to reform the suicide prevention lifeline system and Veterans Crisis Line by requiring the Federal Communications Commission — working with the Department of Health and Human Services, and Department of Veterans Affairs — to study the system and make recommendations to Congress on how to improve it.

Bill sponsors say the national suicide hotline number, 800-273-TALK, is too cumbersome to remember.

"The resources we currently have in place for suicide prevention and other mental health crises are simply too difficult to find during a time of need," Stewart said.

State Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, has tried for four years to get a statewide three-digit mental health/suicide prevention hotline without success.

Thatcher said he suggested to Hatch last fall to tackle the issue on a federal level.

"Thank God they’re doing this," he said. "I am so very grateful that our federal delegation is going to solve this problem. This has been such a critical need for so long."

Thatcher said the problem is that people contemplating ending their lives don't know where to call for help.

"Can you imagine what life would be like without 911? And yet that is the very world that people struggling with mental health live in," he said.

The Legislature earlier this year passed Thatcher's bill creating a statewide mental health crisis line commission to study how to create and put into effect a three-digit line for 24/7 access to a mental or behavioral health professional, should the time come.

Last year, Utah launched a crisis intervention cellphone app call SafeUT. Counselors at the University of Utah Neuropsychiatric Institute staff the text and chat lines to help young people dealing with depression, bullying and other issues.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States — about 35,000 take their lives each year — and the seventh leading cause of death in Utah.

The Utah Department of Human Services, Utah Division of Substance Abuse Mental Health, University Neuropsychiatric Institute, and American Foundation for Suicide Prevention support the federal legislation. Email: Twitter: dennisromboy

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