On July 16, the Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously to save lives by establishing 9-8-8 as the simple three-digit number that will redirect people looking to harm themselves to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
The hotline currently operates 24 hours a day, every day, and takes more than 2.2 million calls annually through its 10-digit 800 number, which is substantially more difficult to remember than the simple 9-8-8. The move makes access to telehealth counseling simpler and is expected to dramatically increase the likelihood that those struggling in their most vulnerable moments will seek help.
And in rural America, that struggle is all too real.
Suicide disproportionately impacts rural communities.
All over rural America, loss of life is felt deeply, with ripple effects in our interconnected communities that go far beyond just family and friends. While urban areas see nearly just over 11 deaths by suicide per 100,000 people and falling according to statistics by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, rural communities are more than 20 per 100,000 and growing.
Montana ranks near the top of the list with 24.9 suicides per 100,000.
Suicide is the end of a winding road of mental distress and finding resources during one’s darkest hours is imperative to ending the war some wage on themselves. That’s exceedingly difficult, however, when most rural counties do not have an adequate number of mental health providers, and many lack even adequate numbers of general practitioners who could offer some assistance or referrals.
For members of the Montana State Grange, an even more concerning trend is being seen in the agriculture industry, where farmers, ranchers and agricultural workers are more likely to commit suicide than those working in nearly any other profession. After a high-profile story in 2018 about an 82-year-old farmer who died of suicide in Montana, the rural suicide crisis was brought to the attention of people around the United States. Suicides in rural communities have been linked to many different factors, such as long work hours, economic hardships and social isolation. These factors often go unchecked in the community, because of stigma and the lack of trained professionals readily available to handle mental distress, leaving farmers, ranchers and agricultural workers left to deal with their hardships alone.
Veterans in Montana account for 1 in every 5 suicides, many of them related to PTSD.
And in our state, Indigenous youth, who often live in rural areas, experience suicide at the rate of 42.82 per 100,000. These numbers are exceptionally large when only 6% of our state’s population identifies as Indigenous.
Voting to establish 9-8-8 was a simple way to connect people with necessary services that already exist. With every person who dials the number and is dissuaded from ending their life, the legacy of this program will grow.
As carriers connect the technological dots necessary to route 9-8-8 crisis calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, each of us should save into our phones and our memory the three-digit code that can save a life and commit to promoting its availability.
For our regulators and legislators, we also urge a commitment — to the continued innovation and expansion of quality telehealth programs that will combat the crisis of suicide in Montana and beyond.
Marilyn Johnson is president of Montana State Grange, the oldest rural advocacy organization in the state.
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