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The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay gets more funding to hire 988 staff

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Crisis Center of Tampa Bay
Clara Reynolds, CEO of the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, says after the positions are filled it will take a couple of months to train the new employees before they can answer 988 calls.

The money will pay for 10 staffers focused on handling 988 calls. Staff now are juggling those calls while also managing other helplines.

The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay is planning to hire more staff dedicated to serving people who dial into the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline with mental health emergencies.

The center recently received $760,000 to help manage 988 for Hillsborough and Charlotte counties.

The Central Florida Behavioral Health Network distributed the funding, which originated at the federal level through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and a supplemental block grant, according to Ken Gibson, marketing director at the Crisis Center.

It comes as call centers around the nation face staffing shortages, a problem that existed before the 988 line launched in July but has only been exacerbated as calls to the lifeline rise.

Federal health officials reported a 45% increase nationwide in calls, texts and chats to 988 during the month of August compared to the same month last year, when the previous 10-digit suicide prevention number was in use.

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

The funding will allow the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay to hire 10 more people focused on handling calls to the lifeline, with some of those positions filled by newcomers and others existing staff, according to Gibson.

Staff have had to juggle 988 while responding to other helplines, including 211 for social services and the statewide substance abuse hotline, among others.

“One of the things that we have made a commitment to is all those other phonelines are important as well,” said president and CEO Clara Reynolds. “Because if we neglect those, those calls could turn into a crisis as well. So it's been an amazing balance that this team has had to work through to make sure that we are responding as much as possible to the variety of calls that we get in our call center."

It could take some time to see the effects of the funding, Reynolds said. Once the new positions are filled, she said, it takes a couple of months to train staff members before they can answer 988 calls. Staff learn motivational interview techniques and evidence-based practices to assess what resources a caller may need, which could include a listening ear or emergency intervention.

The 988 lifeline has backup systems in place so callers don't have to wait for help if a center is busy.

“If you are struggling with some sort of behavioral health issue and you’re just not sure where to go, that’s the time to call 988,” Reynolds said.

The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay gets more funding to hire 988 staff

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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.