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New funds from Biden administration boost efforts to address ‘alarming’ suicide rate

By Jen Christensen, CNN

(CNN) — Amid an “unprecedented behavioral health crisis” with an “alarming” suicide rate, the US Department of Health and Human Services announced Wednesday that it has awarded $232.2 million in grants toward efforts to prevent suicide and to boost behavioral health care for people who are a part of communities that it considers “at-risk.”

Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in the United States, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For 2022 alone, nearly 50,000 people died by suicide, an increase of about 2.6% from the year before.

A 2021 survey from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that 4.8% of adults – nearly 12.3 million people – had had serious thoughts of suicide. Teens are particularly vulnerable; suicide is the second-leading cause of death for them. Among adolescents ages 12 to 17, 12.7% – about 3.3 million – had serious thoughts of suicide, according to the survey.

The majority of the funding announced Wednesday – about $200 million – will help local communities build out capacity for the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline and services related to that effort.

The idea behind changing the lifeline’s number to a simple three digits was to make it easier to remember in a crisis, similar to 911. To reach the National Suicide Prevention Line, as it was previously known, required dialing 1-800-273-TALK.

The 988 line launched a little over a year ago, but a poll from the National Alliance on Mental Illness released in July found that most people (82%) surveyed did not know that they could call or text 988 for help.

Even with those awareness problems, the service received nearly 5 million calls within its first year, almost 2 million more than it received in similar time frames with the previous suicide helpline, HHS said.

The 988 network has more than 200 centers that can respond to people in crisis. They use volunteers as well as paid employees. Calls are routed to centers in the same geographic location as the caller’s area code, but if the person has moved, the centers can route the call to counselors closest to them. Suicide counseling seems to work best when it comes from the caller’s area, since counselors would have more knowledge of local services.

Since the launch, many local 988 call centers have said they need more licensed counselors to help answer phones, text and chat messages, so more than $177 million will go toward helping improve the local response to callers, beefing up security and technical infrastructure, boosting recruitment efforts to hire and train staff as crisis counselors and improving services for people who are at a high risk of suicide, particularly those who are part of underserved populations.

Another $18.3 million will be dedicated to improving the culturally sensitive response to callers from American Indian or Alaska Native population and ensuring follow-up care. Native communities have the highest rates of suicide among racial and ethnic groups in the US.

Another $5 million will give crisis centers an opportunity to follow up with those who call 988.

The money will also help staffers coordinate with emergency services operators to try to reduce the number of unnecessary police responses to people who are having a mental health crisis. A law enforcement response can be stigmatizing, and studies show that it can end in unnecessary incarceration or even death. Many well-intentioned law enforcement officers have little training in the appropriate response to a mental health crisis, research has found.

Additional money will also assist with suicide prevention efforts at the college level and will help specific harder-to-reach populations like older adults and people who live in rural areas.

Older adults are only 12% of the population, but they make up about 18% of suicides in the US, according to the National Council on Aging.

Rural areas can be tough for suicide prevention efforts because residents typically live far from the closest counselor or emergency medical facility. They also typically have more access to firearms, and studies show that a gun in the home is a risk factor for a completed suicide.

“September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. During this month, we are reminded that suicide is preventable, and no one should go through a suicide-related crisis alone,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said Wednesday, emphasizing that the Biden administration “is deeply committed to tackling the mental health challenges facing America, and particularly focused on addressing the alarming rates of suicide.”

CNN’s Jacqueline Howard contributed to this report.

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