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How a BYU alum was essential to the creation of the national ‘988’ suicide prevention lifeline

Ryan and Alison Leavitt each played an important role in developing a new national suicide hotline number.
BYU Magazine. Photo by Jannae Angelos

Editor’s note: The following article discusses the topic of suicide, and reader discretion is advised. This story was originally published by Y Magazine.

In 2017 Matt spent weeks contemplating suicide. On one particularly difficult afternoon he walked through his hometown looking for ways to take his own life. Surrounded by busy passersby yet feeling desperately alone, Matt googled “suicide prevention” and called the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. After a moment a kind elderly woman answered the call and listened as Matt wept. She provided comfort in his darkest moment, offering hope in the possibility of healing. “She saved my life,” Matt says.

Matt’s is one of the 20 million calls the hotline has received since its creation in 2005. For decades suicide has been a leading cause of death among all age groups, increasing by 30 percent since 1999. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline was created to give immediate professional counseling to individuals in emotional distress. The number, however, was long and difficult to remember: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Just this year a new three-digit number came online to increase access to the lifeline. Essential to this project was Ryan W. Leavitt, a past senate staffer. Working under Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Leavitt helped create a bill that directed the Federal Communications Commission to designate the number 988 for the lifeline. To make the bill a reality, several acts had to be written, passed by Congress, and eventually signed into law by the president. “It is complicated and takes time,” explains Leavitt, “but that’s how the government works.”

Both Leavitt and his wife, Alison Barker Leavitt, worked on the 988 project—though in different roles. While Leavitt collaborated with policymakers to craft the legislation, Alison worked as a press secretary for Congressman Chris Stewart. “This was a special project for us to be a part of,” Leavitt says. “It was a way to honor those people who have lost their lives to mental illness.”

You can read the full story in Y Magazine.

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