You hear of these things that are so obvious and right, that you don’t know how anybody could be against it. Enter politics.
The 9-8-8 suicide prevention hotline is like that. The bill was authored by Colorado U.S. Sen Cory Gardner.
The National Suicide Hotline Designation Act passed the U.S. Senate unanimously in May. Colorado's senior senator, Michael Bennet, is a co-sponsor.
Yet, it sits idly in the House as the session slips away.
The proposal would put a fee on mobile or IP-enabled voice service providers to fund suicide prevention personnel and crisis services on top of efficiently routing desperate people to the help they need in critical moments.
Gardner has a lot of obstacles in his way to reelection this year, so it's remarkable that suicide prevention merits a spot on his priority list. Why?
“My hometown, the people I know who have lost their lives,” said the Republican senator from Yuma, a flat patch of the Eastern Plains with a Shop-All grocery store and a whole lot of farmers.
I've made this joke before. In Hollywood, they talk about six degrees of Kevin Bacon. In Yuma it's one degree of Cory Gardner. In a town of 3,400, everyone is connected.
The nation's suicide rate is the highest since World War II, with an increase of 33% from 1999 to 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In a time when we're most connected, social media drives us farther apart with political bickering, Russian memes and self worth lost to uninformed comparisons.
We are a nation desperate for likes, affirmation and instant emotional gratification, leaving a hollow spot in our soul.
In 2018, 48,344 Americans died by suicide from 1.4 million attempts, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. On average, there are 132 suicides a day in this country.
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Americans ages 10 to 34, behind accidents, such as car crashes and drownings. American Indian, white populations, rural residents, veterans and LGBTQ youth are leading the increase.
“If we can change that, if we can bend that statistic, we will directly save lives,” Gardner told me on the phone this week.
It’s not a big-city problem, he said. It’s an everywhere problem. It just seems to hit harder in a small community. Everyone knows. Everyone grieves. Everyone wonders how they could have made a difference. In a bigger pond such a splash is quickly swallowed up. In smaller places, it's like driving through a mud puddle.
“This is a way to give people a real lifeline,” Gardner said, pleadingly. “It can make a difference.”
Knowing there’s help in the palm of your hand, 10 digits away, is a lean toward getting it. Reducing it to three memorable numbers, 9-8-8, makes finding that help a front-of-mind solution.
Colorado has a 24-hour crisis line established by Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2013, in the wake of the unheeded mental health crisis that led up to the Aurora theater shooting the year before.
Hickenlooper is Gardner’s November opponent. I reached out to his campaign a couple of times to see if he wanted to talk about suicide prevention or any other part of his agenda. If I hear back from them, you’ll read about it in a future Insights.
Hickenlooper's primary opponent, Andrew Romanoff, is the former leader of Mental Health Colorado and, like Gardner, spoke of how suicide has touched his life in calling for more work to help Coloradans get by.
I should point out that I contacted Gardner about suicide prevention. His campaign didn't pitch it.
I assured the sitting senator there was no political payback coming for suicide prevention. It did nothing for Romanoff. Mental health programs, as important as they are, just don’t move the needle on Election Day.
“There’s no political calculation here,” Gardner said.
The bill in the House carries the notation "held at the desk." Gardner thinks that's because House Democrats don’t want to give him another win this summer. The president signed Gardner's Great American Outdoors Act Tuesday. Democrats are counting on ousting him in November as part of a plan to take the Senate.
“If Nancy Pelosi wants to take my dog-gone name off of it, go ahead,” Gardner said. “I don’t care. Just pass it.”
Let's hope politicians in Washington can act like adults. Their track record is not good.
The partisans in the Colorado statehouse have been able to put down their fists when it comes to mental health issues repeatedly, which gives me hope for our fractured politics, in general. Last session, for example, state Rep. Brianna Titone, a progressive Democrat from Arvada and the state's first transgender lawmaker, got an assist from Rep. Kevin Van Winkle, a rock-ribbed Republican from Douglas County, to pass a bill to beef up the ways people, especially young people, seek help — online.
House Bill 1113, to provide a state online presence to connect people in crisis with help, including the Colorado SEE ME campaign for mental health and addiction crises. The bill passed the House 55-8 and the Senate 35-0.
There are politicians on each side of the aisle who care deeply about those who struggle, even if voters don't reward them.