Following the success of a pilot program in Carlton County, Minnesota lawmakers are considering a statewide text message suicide prevention program.
The House Health and Human Services committee voted on Wednesday to pass HF 861 -- a bill introduced by Rep. Mike Sundin (DFL-Esko) that would establish a suicide prevention text hotline to help people get emergency contact information.
The bill also aims to create schools and community-based training programs on how to use the text hotline.
Carlton County tested a suicide prevention text line last year, using a $1.4 million federal grant to establish the program. County officials said they received as many text messages from teens in a single day as they typically received in an entire month.
TXT4Life serves 22,000 young people in rural and reservation areas of northeastern Minnesota, covering 24 percent of the state and has 6 percent of the population.
By sending just four letters --"life" -- to a special code number, a teen in need starts texting with a counselor who can talk them down, refer them to others who can help or, if necessary, call in emergency help.
More than 600 people in Minnesota committed suicide in 2010, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Officials say teens would rather send a text than call for help, and the program's counselors engage with an average of 400 people per month in seven northeastern counties. By contrast, the state's suicide prevention phone line gets fewer than 15 calls per month.
The suicide rate for youth and adults in the area is among the highest in the state, and historically exceeds the state average. American Indian youth and girls are particularly at risk. An estimated 1,500 youth benefit from involvement in at least one level of the Carlton County-based suicide prevention response system.
Dave Lee called it "a lifeline in (teens') pocket, immediately available when they most need it." As Carlton county's director of Public Health and Human Services, Lee helped set up and run the pilot with a $1.4 million federal grant. Word spread fast. Despite the initial seven-county scope, counselors have chatted with people from 48 Minnesota counties.
The bill calls for the state to fund the Minnesota-wide program, but it doesn't specify a total dollar amount. Sundin told the Associated Press he estimates the state may need to provide $2.5 million annually to fund the program.
Those funds would fund trips to middle and high schools to teach about the text line and get students to program the number into their phones, just in case. It would also help staff counselors around the clock. The text line currently runs from noon to midnight.
Lawmakers will next take up the question of how much money, if any, the state should provide to fund the program. Sundin said he hopes the health finance committee doesn't lose sight of the importance of saving lives.
"This issue is a lot bigger than just numbers at the bottom of a page," Sundin said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.