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LEGISLATIVE NEWS: 988 lifeline bill keeps Washington leading in suicide prevention

OLYMPIA—A measure just introduced by Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, will help ensure suicide prevention and behavioral health crisis services are accessible to everyone statewide. The bipartisan National Suicide Hotline Designation Act, designated 988 as the new national suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline number, paving the way for states to develop improved crisis response systems.

The measure will help build infrastructure for enhanced and expanded crisis services beginning in July 16, 2022, the date that the federal law requires all phone service providers to direct 988 calls to the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline/Veterans Crisis Line

“These new services will truly be a life line for individuals experiencing behavioral health crises and for families whose loved ones are struggling with depression, substance use, and thoughts of suicide,” said Orwall, a mental health professional whose leadership in suicide prevention efforts over the past eight years has been widely recognized. “The COVID-19 pandemic is making things worse by increasing stress and uncertainty, and exacerbating feelings of fear and loneliness.”

Implementation of the new 988 National Crisis Line and related crisis services will reduce reliance on emergency room services, as well as the use of law enforcement. The goal is to ensure that all Washington residents receive a rapid, consistent and effective level of crisis services no matter where they live, work, or travel in the state.

“Having a behavioral health crisis is not illegal,” said Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, the bill’s sponsor in the Senate. “It is a cry for help. This is our opportunity to ensure we have a robust statewide system to respond to behavioral health crises so that people get the help they need. The 988 crisis hotline will help ensure that the response comes from appropriate behavioral health services, with coordination from law enforcement only when safety is an issue.”

Over the past decade, deaths by suicide have increased by 36 percent in our state. It is the single leading cause of death for Washingtonians ages 10 through 24, and suicide rates are higher than the general population among veterans, American Indians/Alaska Natives, LGBTQ youth, and people living in rural areas.

“When you have an accident, a health care emergency or a fire you call 911 trusting that the operator will be able to get you the help you need. For many people, a behavioral health crisis is an emergency, and accessing potentially life-saving resources by dialing three easy to remember digits, 988, could be the difference between a tragedy and a sunrise the next day,” Orwall added.

To provide higher quality support for people experiencing behavioral health crises, Orwall’s House Bill 1182 calls for investments to, among other things, create a high tech crisis call center system, mobile rapid response crisis teams and crisis stabilization units, short-term respite facilities, peer-operated respite services, and behavioral health urgent care walk-in centers across the state and in collaboration with the tribes.

“The promise of the new 988 system cannot be overstated. Our current system does not work as well as it needs to for individuals in crisis and their families. This measure has the potential to dramatically improve response, triage and access to crisis services across our state” said Forefront Suicide Prevention Center Director, Dr. Jennifer Stuber at the University of Washington 

Orwall’s first suicide prevention bill, back in 2012, was brought to her by Stuber, with whom she has continued working diligently in partnership, year after year, to reduce the incidence of suicides in Washington state.

The 2021 Legislative Session began on Monday and will adjourn on April 25.