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Senate Committee Approves New Jersey’s Suicide Hotline System

A bill would connect the state’s emergency response system to the national suicide prevention hotline system and provide several other response services for mental health emergencies.

(TNS) — A nationwide suicide hotline takes effect July 16, enabling people in a mental health crisis to simply dial “988″ and be connected with a trained counselor.

A panel of lawmakers on Thursday took the first step toward creating the infrastructure to link the New Jersey to this help line and a cadre of emergency services that will be offered to get people the help they need faster and with precision.

The Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee unanimously voted to approve a Core Behavioral Health Crisis Services System that bill also establishes a mobile response system that would dispatch trained professionals to a person in need.

Dialing 911 dispatches police officers to every kind of emergency there is. Juliet Hyndman, president of Warren County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, explained how dialing 911 ultimately harmed her son 21 years ago.

“My son’s first mental health crisis was further exacerbated with added trauma because of an intervention involving law enforcement,” Hyndman, a White Township resident testified. The 911 operator mistakenly told the State Troopers responding to the call that it was a domestic violence matter. Her son was arrested.

“Since 2001, my son has been hospitalized 14 times — the last one as recent as March 2020. All but three hospitalizations were classified involuntary inpatient commitments,” she said. “I share this information because I am convinced that the trauma of that first crisis response call has always imposed an added challenge to his ability to overcome, as he has tries to embrace and make sense of his mental illness, and by grace clinging, by faith in God, to find hope for a future.”

Fortunately, she said, her son graduated from Rutgers University, is employed and lives independently, Hyndman said.

Passing this bill would mean a lot to people facing a mental health crisis and their families.

“The money targeted to these services will in the long run, redeem its value by the gain in labor productivity, relief on our criminal justice system and strengthening the overall health and well-being of the people of New Jersey,” she said.

The new services would be funded through a new monthly tax on monthly mobile phones. The state Department of Human Services would determine what it would cost to provide these services and the amount of the tax, according to the bill.

Republicans on the committee balked at the idea of a state agency deciding how much that tax would cost.

“We are adding a tax, and if there’s one thing the people of New Jersey don’t need is another tax,” said Sen. Edward Durr, R- Gloucester.

“It’s something that we as members of the legislature should have say in,” Sen. Holly Shepisi, R- Bergen said.

Chairman Joseph Vitale, D- Middlesex, the prime sponsor of the bill, said the legislation would go before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, which could delve into the matter further. But Vitale said Human Services is the agency that will “determine how much they are going to need to provide the services,” he said.

The money raised by the tax cannot be used for other purposes in the state budget, according to the bill.

The legislation will “fill the gaps currently exist in our state’s system of behavioral health crisis care,” said Barbara Johnston, policy and advocacy director for the Mental Health Association in New Jersey. “The 988 suicide/mental health crisis line provides someone to call and mobile crisis response teams provide ‘someone to respond.”

“Instituting the 988 line and mobile crisis care throughout New Jersey will help to keep individuals in the community, out of hospitals and the criminal justice system, and connect and engage individuals in behavioral health services,” she said.

Suicide rates have been rising for a long time, and the demand for mental health services has grown throughout the pandemic. In 2019, 762 people took their own lives in New Jersey and 47,511 in the nation, according to state Health Department website. A decade earlier, 637 people in the state died by suicide and 36,909 in the country.

Calls to the state’s main suicide hotlines jumped more than 20 percent in 2020.

Last year, 778 people in New Jersey took their own lives, and 239,000 adults had thoughts of suicide, Johnson said.

Every state must enact laws and prepare for the nationwide 988 system — the equivalent of the 911 system people call in emergencies.

Two years ago, the Federal Communications Commission, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Veteran Affairs, and the North American Numbering Council released a report recommending a universal three-digit number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The following year, the FCC adopted rules establishing the 988 number.

People will be able to continue calling the existing hotline, 1-800-273- 8255 (1-800-273-TALK) after 988 takes effect July 16, according to the FCC. By that time, phone service providers must route all calls to the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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