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The 988 mental health line is reaching more Floridians in crisis two months into launch

 Staff with the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay have responded to thousands of 9-8-8 calls since the lifeline launched in July.
Crisis Center of Tampa Bay
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Staff with the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay have responded to thousands of 988 calls since the line launched in July.

The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay has answered thousands of 988 calls since the launch, and CEO Clara Reynolds says emergency responders have only had to get involved about 2% of the time.

More people are calling for help in a mental health emergency since the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline replaced a 10-digit suicide prevention hotline this summer.

Experts had anticipated a surge in calls, hoping the shorter number would be easier for people experiencing mental health emergencies to remember and dial. So far, they were right.

In August, the first full month 988 was operational, the U.S. reported a 45% increase in overall calls, texts and chats compared to August 2021, according to data released this past week by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay reports it’s received 3,152 calls since 988 launched July 16. The center manages the 988 line for Hillsborough and Charlotte counties.

Health News Florida's Stephanie Colombini talked with Clara Reynolds, president and CEO of the center, about how the first months have gone.

How do the numbers of 988 calls compare to when the previous 10-digit suicide prevention lifeline existed?

The call volume has exceeded what any of us thought it was going to look like.

Prior to 988, we'd been doing this work since the suicide prevention helpline was created in 2005. And we would average between 80 to 100 calls a week, you know, 10 to 20 a day.

Right now, we had one day where we took 100 calls in a day, and we topped out that week with over 500 calls. So it has been unbelievable. Our community and I think our country are really struggling with behavioral health issues, and people are reaching out for help.

It's troubling that so many people have to call in for help, but I guess it does mean that the public is getting the message about 988. Are you noticing any trends from when people call in?

About half of those calls right now are individuals who are actively suicidal. The other half are for individuals who are in some sort of behavioral health crisis.

I think it's incredible, first of all, that people are reaching out and asking for help. I think that we're able to connect them to the resources that they need. And oftentimes that resource is just a listening ear, somebody who's trained and qualified to be able to be present in the moment and just hear what's going on in somebody's life.

One of the data points that we really look at is how often do we have to call 911 for an active rescue, and only about 2% of the calls are we actually having to do that.

That's a great point you bring up about law enforcement, because one of the concerns we're seeing on social media, is some people are wary to call 988 because they're, you know, fearing that police might get involved or that they might get involuntarily committed for treatment. How would you address somebody's concerns about that?

That's a fabulous question. First and foremost, our job is to keep you alive in the moment. If you're in a position where you are actively dangerous, you're telling me that you've got the gun in your hand, you're telling me you're about to swallow the bottle of pills, my only goal is to make sure that we keep you alive in that moment. And right now, in our community, that means we have to dispatch law enforcement, we have to dispatch 911 systems.

In the next iteration, you know — this is the first part of a multi-tiered process. There will be other resources available that will be able to go in a home quickly to intervene. But right now, in the Tampa Bay area, that is our process. So I would say for anybody out there that's concerned, recognize that our goal is to keep you alive.

If during our evaluation process, though, you're having thoughts of suicide, maybe you've contemplated it — but you don't have an active plan — and you don't have an active method right there with you, we don't need to dispatch 911. We don't need to send somebody to you right away. We can utilize other resources and supports to make that happen.

And that's why I'm so pleased that when we look at the data, it's really a very small percentage of individuals that need help. But please understand, if we didn't dispatch that help, there's a high likelihood of that individual dying.

What else goes into it beyond that first call?

We will help people connect to a multitude of resources, and one of the resources that we actually have here at the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay is care coordination.

As you are well aware, we have a real shortage right now of therapists that are able to see somebody quickly. So we want to make sure that we're touching base with an individual who has already expressed that they’re suicidal.

We have a team of care coordinators that will call you daily or weekly, whatever you need to make sure that you're moving forward in your plan. And if you get caught up somewhere, we're going to troubleshoot and help to get you wherever you need to go. That is all voluntary on the individual's part.

The one thing I'm really proud of, though, is that once you connect to our care coordination services, lethality drops tremendously because we're constantly keeping up with you and making sure that you're doing all right.

Copyright 2022 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters, WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.