BOSTON — Suicide rates have reached their highest levels since the end of World War II, according to federal data, claiming an average of 20 lives a day.
Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Salem, says it's time to treat suicide like any other life-threatening public crisis, and he wants Congress to take the lead.
Moulton is co-sponsoring a proposal with Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, that would establish a three-digit number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline — 988.
Moulton said a three-digit number would likely make it easier for Americans in crisis to access potentially lifesaving resources.
"Whether you're contemplating suicide, have a panic attack, or are a veteran dealing with post-traumatic stress, you need to be able to dial one number to get connected to the professional you need," Moulton told reporters Wednesday during a visit to the Samaritans Helpline Center in Boston. "This bill is an important turning point, and there's no question it will save lives."
Last year, Congress passed a bipartisan law that required the Federal Communications Commission to come up with recommendations for the three-digit number.
The law, signed by President Donald Trump, called for a study to determine the hotline's effectiveness and to identify the best three-digit dialing code.
"Crisis call centers save lives," the FCC wrote in a report recommending the new hotline. "Increasing the convenience and immediacy of access to a national suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline via a 3-digit dialing code will therefore help spread a proven, effective intervention."
The federal agency estimated it would cost about $570 million in the first year to set up the new hotline, and $175 million in the following year. To calculate the cost-benefits of making the switch, the agency estimated the value of a single human life at $9.6 million.
"While the value of a human life cannot be reduced to a dollar figure, we nonetheless require some method of valuing the reduction in mortality risk to show that undertaking this recommendation is reasonable, given its costs," the FCC wrote. "We conclude that if suicide risk could be reduced by 60 statistical lives, the benefits would exceed the costs."
Calls to the current National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273-8255, are routed from anywhere in the country to the closest certified crisis center. The call center provides free, confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week for people in suicidal crisis or distress.
Moulton's proposal would allow states to charge a fee, similar to a charge for 911 services tacked onto cable bills, to support local call centers connected to a new network.
"We need to make sure this gets passed into law and make sure the funding is available," he said.
Moulton, a Marine Corps veteran who served four tours in Iraq, revealed his own struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder to highlight the issue of mental health among vets while running for president earlier this year. He noted the suicide rate among veterans, especially those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, are among the highest of any group.
Despite those efforts, the number of suicide deaths has been increasing slightly every year for more than a decade, according to the state Department of Public Health.
In 2017, there were 682 suicides in Massachusetts — more deaths than those attributed to auto crashes and homicides combined. That’s a 8% rise from the previous year and a nearly 60% increase from 2004, when there were 433 suicide deaths in the state, according the department.
Youth suicides in Massachusetts increased from 69 in 2014 to 86 in 2016, according to the latest state statistics.
Nationally, more than 47,000 people died by suicide, and about 1.4 million adults tried to take their own lives in 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.