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A recently introduced Kentucky House bill would fund the state’s implementation of a simplified suicide prevention hotline through a tax on mobile phones. 

Republican Rep. Kim Banta, from Ft. Mitchell, filed Kentucky House Bill 373 last month.

The bipartisan bill outlines state funding for the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020, which in part simplifies the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to 9-8-8, from the longer 1-800-273-TALK.

Kentucky’s legislation proposes a 70-cent mobile phone tax on all monthly mobile phone bills, phone cards, additional minutes and the sale and recharging of prepaid phones, starting Jan. 1. The structure is similar to taxes taken out for 9-1-1 services. 

The revenue would help bolster and sustain fully staffed, 24/7 local call centers which would work in partnership with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Additional funding is also included in the current state budget proposal.

Once the national line is in place in July, people in crisis will be able to call 9-8-8 and talk directly with trained mental health professionals who can connect them to further services. 

Banta said the new system is sorely needed. The current phone number may be too long for people in crisis to readily remember. 

“They don’t commit it to memory,” she said. “And when do you know you’re going to have a crisis and need to know a nine-digit number? This is putting in place something that is good for people.”

Banta also said that often people having a mental health crisis – or their friends or loved ones – call 9-1-1 because it’s the number they know. 

“Police are great about doing wellness checks,” she said. “But they can’t go to the next layer which is the support that you need … the counseling, the therapy, the hospital … whatever is next. 

“[With this,] you’ll have a trained person on the end of the phone that will be able to get you to that next point.”

She says the additional money from the bill will help ensure people aren’t put on hold when they call in.

Advocates for better mental health services say the need for the line is likely to increase. Marcie Timmerman, executive director of Mental Health America of Kentucky, was one of several who spoke during a news conference at the state Capitol rotunda this week. 

Her organization, along with the Kentucky chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and others, are part of FUND988KY, a movement of supporters of the bill. 

She said right now, there are around 125,000 calls per year to the regional crisis lines. Projections show calls to 9-8-8 are expected to double in the first year and could more than triple by 2024. 

The funding would also increase access to mobile crisis units and crisis stabilization units, according to a news release from FUND988KY. 

“We don’t want to just talk about it, we actually have to treat it,” Timmerman said. “We have to have something there for people when they need it.”

Under the proposed legislation, the initiative in Kentucky would be overseen by a seven-member board including first responders, elected officials and those in the mental health community.  It was referred last week to the House Appropriations & Revenue Committee. 

According to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the current number will also remain active after the new number is implemented. 

Aprile Rickert is WFPL's health reporter.