Padilla, Tillis Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Enhance and Expedite Access to the 9-8-8 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, U.S. Senators Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), co-founders of the bipartisan Senate Mental Health Caucus, introduced legislation to improve and expedite access to the 9-8-8 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. The Local 9-8-8 Response Act of 2023 would expedite the process of connecting callers with their nearest call center so they can receive appropriate care from mental health professionals as quickly and as safely as possible, while still protecting user privacy. Representative Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.-29), co-chair of the bipartisan House 988 & Crisis Services Task Force, introduced companion legislation in the House of Representatives.

The bipartisan 9-8-8 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline has been critical for supporting Americans in crisis, but currently, calls to the hotline are routed by area code rather than by the caller’s location. This system leads to callers oftentimes being connected to centers that cannot connect them with additional mental health assistance. As awareness of the hotline increases, it is crucial to ensure that the line can quickly connect callers to a range of mental health services and a full continuum of care.

“Congress created the bipartisan 9-8-8 hotline to make it as easy as possible for Californians and Americans in crisis to quickly access lifesaving support,” said Senator Padilla. “Mental health response on the lifeline must be efficient and safe, but the current system risks connecting callers to response teams thousands of miles away. We need to improve access to the hotline and connect callers with their nearest center for support. I am grateful for Senator Tillis’ and Representative Cárdenas’ leadership in this bipartisan fight to help make sure those in crisis know they are not suffering alone.”

“From the creation of the 9-8-8 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline to historic mental health investments included in the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, we have made substantial progress in recent years in expanding access to quality mental health care,” said Senator Tillis. “This legislation furthers that goal by ensuring those experiencing a mental health crisis receive rapid and localized care when calling the Lifeline, and I’m proud to introduce this bipartisan legislation with my colleagues to make lifesaving mental health care more accessible.”

“The Local 988 Response Act improves access to life- saving supports and mental health resources by requiring calls and texts to the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline be routed based on the caller’s proximity to the local call center rather than by area code,” said Robert Gebbia, Chief Executive Officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “AFSP is grateful to Senator Padilla and Senator Tillis for their bipartisan leadership to enhance access to 988 by ensuring individuals in crisis receive timely support, while maintaining privacy.”

“The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is saving lives and serving as the entry point to a reimagined mental health crisis system. NAMI is grateful to Sens. Padilla and Tillis for introducing the Local 9-8-8 Response Act to ensure people calling 988 get connected to the local resources that help them get well and stay well,” said Hannah Wesolowski, Chief Advocacy Officer of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). “This bill will ensure that help seekers reaching out to 988 get connected to the support they need in their community.”

Specifically, the legislation would improve access to and the accuracy of 9-8-8 response by:

  • Requiring the FCC to route calls based on the proximity of a caller to the call center, not their area code. The bill specifies that a caller’s specific location should not be revealed or discernible;
  • Instructing carriers to allow calls and texts to 9-8-8 even if their phone plan is inactive or the carrier is experiencing service interruptions or failures, just as they currently do for 911 calls; and by
  • Obligating multi-line systems like hotel and office phones to support the direct dialing of 9-8-8, rather than requiring a caller to dial 9 or another number before dialing 9-8-8.

Senator Padilla has been a strong advocate for expanding mental health care access, especially for underserved communities. In October, Padilla, Tillis, and Senators Tina Smith (D-Minn.) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) announced the launch of the bipartisan Senate Mental Health Caucus to serve as a forum for Senators to collaborate on and promote bipartisan legislation and solutions, hold events to raise awareness of critical mental health issues, and destigmatize mental health. Earlier this year, Padilla introduced a trio of bills to address the unique mental health needs of military children, Latinos, and farm workers. He also supported the passage last Congress of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which includes major investments in community-based mental health services. Padilla also previously highlighted the 9-8-8 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline for Californians alongside California Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan and state mental health experts.

A one-pager of the bill is available here.

Full text of the bill available here.


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