With suicides rising in North Dakota, lawmakers eye phone tax to help fund crisis hotline

Bill sponsor Sen. Kathy Hogan, D-Fargo, said “people are dying by suicide partially because we do not have an adequate crisis response system.”

The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline pairs callers with trained counselors who aim to help with mental health or substance use crises.

Editor's note: Anyone dealing with mental illness or suicidal thoughts is urged to call or text the national Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988.

BISMARCK — More North Dakotans died by suicide in 2022 than any year on record. A bipartisan group of state lawmakers say ensuring a crisis hotline receives sufficient funding could help reverse the disturbing public health trend.

The North Dakota Senate narrowly voted last month to approve Senate Bill 2149, which would levy a monthly 30-cent tax on all cell phone lines and landlines to fund the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline program. The House will now consider the proposal.

Bill sponsor Sen. Kathy Hogan, D-Fargo, said “people are dying by suicide partially because we do not have an adequate crisis response system.”

“We all know that when we call 911, we will get help,” Hogan told the Senate in February. “We need to do the same for people facing mental health challenges.”


At least 166 North Dakota residents are known to have died by suicide last year, according to a provisional state report. That’s the most annually recorded suicide deaths since 1972, the first year in the Department of Health and Human Services’ database.

The issue is even more pronounced among young people. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in North Dakotans ages 10 to 24, according to the Department of Public Instruction.

But proponents of the 24-hour crisis hotline say it has saved countless lives by providing a resource to those struggling with mental health challenges. The hotline offers access to trained counselors who aim to help people experiencing mental health or substance use crises.

A 10-digit suicide prevention hotline has been operating in the U.S. since 2005, but Congress passed legislation in 2020 to designate the easier-to-dial 9-8-8 as the nationally available Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. The three-digit line also can receive text messages.

Despite the recent federal action, states have been left to foot most of the bill for expanding the hotline program, said Sen. Judy Lee, R-West Fargo. Thirty cents a month is a tiny cost for phone users that would give the critical hotline a reliable source of funding, Lee said.

The 30-cent tax beginning in January 2024 would generate about $2.7 million a year for the hotline program, according to an estimate by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Sen. Shawn Vedaa, R-Velva, spoke against the legislation, noting that North Dakotans already pay several taxes through their phone bills. He said the hotline already functions without the extra cash.

“I don’t see why we have to throw another 30-cent fee on the phone,” Vedaa said. “This is our taxpayers’ money we’re asking them to pay.”


Sen. Michelle Axtman, R-Bismarck, said suicide attempts have been on the rise this year among adolescents in and around the state’s capital city. The high rate of suicidal ideation among teens, especially young girls and women, is enough of a reason to support the hotline funding, said the mother of two daughters.

“The 30 cents (in monthly fees) does not keep me up at night, but the risk of suicide does,” Axtman said.

The House voted last month to advance a separate bill that would establish a board to review suicide deaths. The panel would aim to identify risk factors and to recommend policies for improving responses to those at risk of suicide.

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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