When a young person is feeling suicidal, it can be tough to reach out for help – and hard to think straight enough to know who to call. But the US has come up with a solution set to help thousands every year.
In a bid to make it easier for those in acute distress, the US passed a bill late last year to introduce a three-digit suicide hotline number.
Like emergency services, the number (predicted to be 9-8-8) will be easy to remember, and the line will be attended by a government-funded support workers trained to help callers with their immediate needs, and connect them to services that can help them on an ongoing basis.
It's a move that could help many young people here in Australia as well. With suicide rates accounting for around a third of all deaths of children aged 15-19, a three-digit phone number could remove barriers and make it easier to call for help. Lifeline currently runs a 24-hour crisis support and suicide prevention hotline, with the number 13 11 14, but a three-digit number could make it even easier for those in need to call for help.
A simple three-digit number would be a step forward for the Australian mental health sector says Ally Kelly, director of Mind Blank, a health promotion charity which aims to reduce the risk of suicide through interactive theatre.
"If a three-digit suicide prevention is rolled out well, it could help get at-risk individuals to intervention sooner," she says. "This has the potential to reduce the growing demand of individuals at crisis point entering into an emergency, where it may be too late to help.
"All the time I hear stories where there are general public and community members who are not knowledgeable about the services that are there to support. They find it hard to stumble through the system to find the right numbers to call in a time of need."
For the change to happen in Australia, Kelly says it would need to be introduced federally in collaborative efforts throughout the mental health sector.
"Personally, I would love to see the education, health and justice sectors working together to roll out communications for something like this," she says.
Getting buy-in from stakeholders across the mental health space could be a challenge, says Kelly, as could communication across various government and non-government organisations. But the potential to help people is enormous.
Kelly says seeking support can be an isolating experience in itself, with many hospitals being equipped to treat children in acute need, but not able to offer ongoing support.
"Too many times I have heard stories from parents where the hospitals are at max capacity and once the young person is no longer at harm to themselves or others then they are sent home, only to have the suicidal ideation cycle repeat again," she says.
"This is not an ideal pattern to repeat. We need to get our young people to be seeking help before it gets to this crisis point. We need to educate our community to realise that even when you get onto a pathway for help out health systems are maxed out so expect a six-week to six-month waiting list. We need to do better at educating the public in knowing what to do in the meantime to support these vulnerable youths, and we need to educate the public to understand that supporting your mental health is like supporting a broken bone in your body.
"It is a long process, but it will get better."
Kelly says great strides have been made in recent years with mental health support awareness.
"Students these days (located in the major cities) are aware of services such as Headspace, Kids Helpline, etc." she says . "They are seeing the advertising in schools and on social media."
Kelly says if parents see the merit of a three-digital suicide support number, their first course of action is to contact their local member or governing body.
"A letter to their local MP is always a good start," she says. "There are governing bodies such as Suicide Prevention Australia that might champion the cause for them."
Lifeline 13 11 14
Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800