Utah’s involvement in the three-digit mental health hotline: the origin story of 988

July 15, 2022

Starting tomorrow, 988 will roll out, providing immediate access to crisis intervention and support for behavioral health across the United States. Sen. Daniel Thatcher initiated the idea for a three-digit crisis line in Utah, and it resulted in a national hotline.

“In 2013, I got a phone call from a single dad. After taking his suicidal son to the ER, he was turned away and told, ‘bring him back if he hurts himself.’ This father was desperate and asked me what to do and where he should go. I had no idea. That experience started my push to increase mental health awareness and resource accessibility in Utah.

“I proposed the first three-digit crisis number bill in the 2014 session. It failed. Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes saw the benefit and volunteered to lead a commission to study the issue. That commission resulted in the creation of the miraculous SafeUT program, the consolidation of dozens of crisis numbers into a single contact point that has saved lives every day. Still, I never gave up on the idea of a three-digit number for behavioral crisis response.

“In November of 2016, Sen. Orrin Hatch visited my home. Over pecan pie, I shared my frustration and difficulties securing a crisis number for our state. He responded by putting his arm around me and saying, “My boy, you are thinking too small.” From that point, I began working with Sen. Hatch’s and Rep. Chris Stewart’s office to create a three-digit mental health number nationwide. 

“There are so many people who deserve recognition. I will never be able to properly express my gratitude to everyone involved, but I want to provide a shout-out to a few of the many deserving individuals:

  • Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes – led the commission that helped break through many obstacles.
  • The University of Utah – has incredible staff to answer calls and provide follow-up care.
  • Legislative colleagues and leadership teams – secured funding.
  • Gov. Spencer Cox – brought a new level of awareness to fight the stigma of behavioral health challenges. 
  • Sen. Orrin Hatch and Congressman Chris Stewart – worked to obtain support on a national level. 
  • Rep. Steve Eliason – the floor sponsor for critical mental health bills and pioneered many other solutions. 

“Nine years after that first fateful call, instead of serving only Utahns in crisis, 988 will be used to help every American in need, every single day. As a survivor of chronic depression and suicide ideation, I know firsthand that when people get help, they live. It’s really that simple.”

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