Merkley, Wyden: Suicide prevention must be year-round effort
The recent month-long "Breaking the Silence" reporting project by newsrooms throughout Oregon brings to the forefront a much-needed conversation about suicide in our state and country.
Stark statistics from the reporting underscore the fact that suicide is a public health crisis in Oregon. Our state's suicide rate has risen by 35% since 2000. In 2017, 825 of our friends, relatives and neighbors died by suicide, a rate far above the national average. Suicide ranks as the second-highest cause of death among young Oregonians. And of course, behind each of those troubling numbers is a unique story of pain, for loved ones left behind, and of unrealized potential for each life lost to suicide.
As your United States senators, we are both committed to making sure these reports lead to genuine strategies to save lives in our state and country. There are three keys to reverse these tragic trends to take steps to reduce suicide in Oregon and nationwide.
One: Our entire community must ensure this very worthwhile "Breaking the Silence" effort does not become a one-off.
Hard work and frank conversations throughout the year are a must to prevent suicide from slipping back into whispered conversations or secrecy that stifles solutions.
At a recent news conference with Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, Commissioner Sharon Meieran and representatives from the American Federation for Suicide Prevention and Lines for Life, we all spoke of the need to end the outdated and destructive stigma attached to mental illness. Breaking the silence requires all of us to challenge this stigma with words and actions that will help people feel confident coming forward to ask for the help they need.
Two: Policy-makers have the responsibility to make mental health help available when people need it and where people need it. These policy decisions have real-life consequences.
That's why both of us are fighting to protect the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
As the largest single payer of mental health services nationwide, Medicaid plays a crucial part in helping low-income Americans get access to the behavioral health services they need.
Medicaid's expansion allowed more than 300,000 additional Oregonians — enough people to fill the Moda Center 15 times over — to get these mental health services when they need them.
And given the prevalence of guns in suicide, we both believe it's long past time to free up funds to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for research into gun violence.
Good research provides information that can guide good policy.
In addition, we are both fighting to restore mental health professionals to schools so that young people will have access to help where they can actually find it.
Three: Be open to fresh approaches that can help. One such concept would be a new three-digit phone hotline dedicated just for mental health crises and suicide prevention.
The Federal Communications Commission should act with urgency to establish this new three-digit number, which has the potential to be an easy-to-remember, 911-like lifeline for people in their darkest hour.
This three-digit number has earned the support of respected suicide prevention experts and nonprofits including Portland-based Lines for Life — whose CEO Dwight Holton deserves huge credit along with newsrooms across Oregon for helping to spark the "Breaking the Silence" conversation.
Breaking the silence to reduce suicide in Oregon will require all of these steps and many others at the local and state level.
Count us both as "All In"!
Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley are Oregon's two U.S. senators.