Matt Sandgren: Utah leads on innovative solutions to mental health crisis

New 988 emergency number connects people with mental health services.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart speaks during a news conference about the National Suicide Prevention Hotline Improvement Act being signed into law. Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018.

Amid a global pandemic and an economic recession, our country is also grappling with a mental health crisis. The effects of this crisis have been acutely felt in Utah, which has the fifth-highest suicide rate in the nation.

What are the root causes of this crisis? How is it impacting individual Utahns and their families? And what policies can we put in place to stem the rise in suicides and improve mental health across the board?

Earlier this month, the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation hosted a panel of mental health advocates and federal policymakers to answer each of these questions and to spotlight commonsense solutions to this urgent crisis. One solution is to make the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline more accessible to Americans in need.

Imagine you or someone you love is facing a medical emergency. Your next step could mean the difference between life and death, and every second counts. What number do you call? 911, of course.

Now imagine a similar scenario — you or someone you love is facing a mental health emergency. What number do you call in this situation? The answer is less obvious: 800-273-8255.

The 10-digit number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is not easy to remember, and few people know it off the top of their heads. A little over three years ago, Utah’s leaders set out to change that.

In the fall of 2017, Sen. Orrin Hatch partnered with Rep. Chris Stewart and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai to devise a strategy to curb our nation’s suicide rate, which has climbed more than 35 percent since 1999. What they came up with was a new three-digit number for the suicide hotline: 988. Their thinking was simple. By making the hotline just three digits and thus, easier to commit to memory, millions of Americans in crisis will have access to the help they need in the moment they need it most.

At the Hatch Center symposium on mental health, we asked Pai and Stewart to highlight federal efforts underway to make 988 a reality. The FCC is requiring all carriers to make the switch by July 2022, but some companies are ahead of the curve. T-Mobile and Verizon customers, for example, can already dial 988 to access free mental health services.

Shortening the suicide hotline to three digits is essential to saving lives. But this is just the beginning. The next step is to mount state and federal campaigns to raise public awareness for the new number, especially among America’s youth. The shortened hotline won’t do anyone any good if nobody knows it. That’s why the Hatch Center is committed to working with schools, businesses, nonprofits, and community organizations to make 988 common knowledge in the same way 911 is today.

For individuals in crisis, calling the national suicide hotline is a measure of last resort. It acts as a life ring for friends or loved ones who are drowning. But it’s not enough to keep these people above water; we need to keep them from falling out of the boat in the first place. That’s why our nation needs a multifaceted approach to suicide prevention—one that equips individuals with the tools they need to manage mental health challenges from an early age.

Providing mental health resources to students in particular is a central focus of the newly established Huntsman Mental Health Institute, which was represented by David Huntsman during our panel discussion. The creation of the Institute could not come at a more critical time for our state and nation. What the Huntsmans did for cancer, they now intend do for mental health by creating a world-class facility to advance mental health treatment, advocacy, and research. David Huntsman highlighted the Institute’s herculean efforts to increase patient access to underserved populations, including Utah’s youth, and praised the thinking behind an innovative policy idea being championed by the Hatch Center: mental health education.

The logic behind this idea is simple. For decades, physical education has been a fixture of America’s public school system. These classes aim to encourage healthy living habits to combat public health problems, such as heart disease and obesity. It’s worth asking then: If we have classes that teach students how to take care of their bodies, why don’t we also have classes that teach them how to take care of their minds? Isn’t the purpose of school, after all, to cultivate and expand the life of the mind? Why, then, are there not regular classes geared towards strengthening and improving mental health? We think there should be, which is why the Hatch Center proposes making mental health education a core part of K-12 school curriculum.

Just as school is unimaginable without physical education today, we believe it will be unimaginable without mental health education tomorrow — and we’re laying the groundwork now to make it happen. To that end, our symposium highlighted the efforts of David Kozlowski, a licensed marriage and family therapist who has designed a social health curriculum being piloted at Herriman High School. Heidi Swapp, one of our panelists who lost her own son to suicide in 2015, is a strong advocate of Kozlowski’s social health curriculum and believes it can save many lives.

We believe that a similar program — one focused on building emotional health, intelligence and resiliency in students — is scalable on both a state and national level. Stewart seems to think so as well. During this event, he even posed the idea that Congress could allocate federal resources to support mental health programs for rural schools.

Fixing our nation’s mental health crisis will require outside-the-box thinking, and getting schools involved is a good place to start. By proving the efficacy of mental health education in Utah, we can make the case for this commonsense solution on a federal level as well. And by raising awareness for 988, we can provide a lifeline to thousands of Americans in need.

In the fight against suicide and mental illness, Utah is at the vanguard of new and creative policy ideas. We must continue to lead the way.

Matt Sandgren

Matt Sandgren is the executive director of the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation, the former chief of staff to Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, and a 15-year veteran of Capitol Hill.