Opinion: The last thing we need in a mental health crisis is online suicide assistance forums
Utah Rep. Chris Stewart is co-sponsoring a bill that will make it a felony offense for anyone who uses online forums to assist in another person’s attempt to die by suicide
The holiday season is an important time for both reflection and appreciation. It’s easy to be cynical in today’s climate — everything from the NFL to Dr. Seuss seems to be politicized. But there is good, bipartisan work being done in Congress. And while it may not get the spotlight on prime-time cable, I’m thankful for my colleagues on both sides of the aisle who continue this quiet yet critical work.
This is nowhere more apparent than in the space of health care, and particularly mental health.
Our country was in a mental health crisis prior to the COVID-19 outbreak — nearly 1 in 5 Americans live with a mental health condition, and suicide was the second-leading cause of death among young people in 2019.
Tragically, the pandemic and its subsequent lockdowns only exacerbated the issue. In the first year of the pandemic alone, anxiety and depression increased by a massive 25% worldwide. This was a serious wake-up call to the entire world: We needed to step up mental health services and support. I’m so proud to say that Congress, on a bipartisan basis, did exactly that.
Some of my most effective and rewarding work has come during my efforts to prioritize mental health. In 2020, Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and I introduced the bipartisan National Suicide Hotline Designation Act. The bill was signed into law that year, designating 988 as the universal telephone number for the national suicide prevention and mental health hotline.
This past summer, after two years of preparation, hiring and training, the 988 number officially went live on all devices in the United States. Our mission was to create a new resource for the growing number of people in mental health crisis to get the help they need. And we are so proud to report that after the official launch of the three-digit number, data shows that it may have saved more than 150,000 lives in its first month.
I’m also grateful for my position on the House Committee on Appropriations — a crucial committee that no Utah member sat on, until my appointment, in over 40 years. This position allows me to help secure mental health funding for our veterans, improve the mental health resources in our schools and much more. But we’re still in the middle of a national mental health crisis, and there is still so much work to be done.
For example, it was recently brought to my attention that so-called “online suicide assistance forums” are attracting millions of viewers per month. The New York Times investigated a ‘popular’ self-harm website that provides explicit information and directions for ending one’s life. Instead of offering help, this site allows those suffering from mental health crises to post and discuss their plans and offer suicidal assistance. Investigators were able to trace more than 45 suicides back to this self-harm site.
Everyone can agree — the last thing we need right now are online forums operating in the shadows of the internet that actively encourage and even assist people to die by suicide.
So, Reps. Lori Trahan, D-Mass., Mike Carey, R-Ohio, Katie Porter, D-Calif., and I introduced the Stop Online Suicide Assistance Forums Act. This bipartisan bill will make it a felony offense for anyone who uses online forums to assist in another person’s attempt to die by suicide, as well as gives the DOJ additional authority to pursue cases against suicide assistance forums.
This type of legislation may not be the “hot topic” being discussed around your dinner table, but it’s absolutely crucial. And the process of this bill’s introduction is important too: a problem was identified — Big Tech needs to be held accountable for its failure to stop users from encouraging self-harm — and my Democratic colleagues and I quickly drafted a solution.
The fight is far from over, and there are many other issue areas that demand more bipartisanship and creative solutions. But here’s the good news — Americans have a proud history of coming together.
So, when you’re sitting around the dinner table with friends and family this holiday season, I’d first recommend you avoid talking politics. But if you can’t — and I have a feeling most of us will try and fail — remind everyone of the humble, yet critical work still being done. We have a long way to go, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to do the people’s work in the greatest nation on earth.
God bless America. And from my family to yours, Merry Christmas and happy holidays.
Chris Stewart represents Utah’s 2nd Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.