Utah lawmakers pass bills to ensure crisis hotlines don’t go to voicemail

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SALT LAKE CITY -- Before she took her own life, 16-year-old Hannah Warburton reached out for help.

But nobody answered.

The story, and activism by her mother, has pushed the Utah State Legislature to pass bills that expand mental health crisis services and fund crisis hotlines to ensure they don't go to voicemail.

Hannah Warburton (right) with her sister, Riley Jo Smith. (Image courtesy Laura Warburton)

"Anybody who is struggling with suicide in any part of the state, we want to have access and hope," Laura Warburton said.

House Bill 41 and House Bill 42 were introduced and passed the House unanimously on Friday. They're part of a series of bills lawmakers are introducing to combat Utah's suicide epidemic. The youth suicide rate is 140% above the national average. The latest numbers show last year, 64 children and teens took their own lives, said Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy.

There are approximately 20 crisis hotlines across the state, Rep. Eliason said, but only one of them is staffed 24 hours a day by licensed clinical social workers.

"Having those phone lines available at all times to be answered is critical. Can you imagine if you called 911 and received voice mail? Or a busy signal?" he said.

House Bill 41 spends about $2 million to ensure crisis lines get answered or at least roll-over to another line where someone will answer. House Bill 42 grants a Medicaid waiver to provide more mental health crisis services, particularly in rural Utah.

"You really don’t know fear and dread until you’re on the phone and a person you love and are responsible for says, 'I love you, goodbye,'" said House Minority Whip Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City.

Laura Warburton is recognized on the House floor for her advocacy work on bullying and suicide prevention. (Photo by Ben Winslow, FOX 13 News)

On the House floor, lawmakers spoke of their own loved ones who have committed suicide and their own struggles.

"It’s happened to a few of us here on the legislative floor. It’s a terrible thing to experience," said Rep. Mark Wheatley, D-Murray.

Rep. Sue Duckworth, D-Magna, stood and shared her story.

"I represent mental health. I’ve suffered for many years and have actually contemplated this decision, this selfish decision, and often when we think about this we’re not in our right mind," she said, crying. "So don’t judge, please. Listen, accept."

Her colleagues rushed to hug her.

"I don’t want to lose another life to a busy signal," said Rep. Justin Fawson, R-North Ogden.

The bills now go to the Senate for consideration. Gov. Gary Herbert has said Utah's youth suicide rate is an emergency and demanded action. He's formed a task force with a mandate to have an action plan by Feb. 15.

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, help is available 24/7 by calling 1-800-273-TALK. Utahns can also visit Hope4Utah and the Suicide Prevention Resource Center for additional resources. You can also download the SafeUT app for instant, confidential crisis services.