Jul 21, 2023 - Health

Tampa Bay crisis workers struggle to answer 988 calls

Illustration of Illustration of person dialing 988 on smartphone

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Dialing the suicide prevention hotline got easier last year, but answering those calls has gotten more difficult for crisis workers.

Why it matters: When local counselors don't answer, calls are routed to out-of-state crisis centers.

  • "The counselors at an overflow facility are less likely to be familiar with local resources and treatment options, including the availability of additional emergency mental health services, KFF study author Heather Saunders told Axios.

Even as we hit the service's one-year mark, few states have established long-term funding commitments to sustain it, Axios' Sabrina Moreno reports.

  • Without more outreach and resources, the hotline could languish as the nation continues to grapple with its mental health crisis.

Zoom in: The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, which picks up local 988 calls, is pushing for more funding to increase its answer rate after a significant increase in calls in the last year.

  • The center told WFTS that within 30 seconds, 80%-90% of every call made is answered. Callers not connected with someone are routed to the next available center.

The big picture: Plans to use some of the nearly $1 billion in federal funding for a nationwide public service campaign haven't materialized, partly due to early concerns that marketing 988 could overwhelm the lifeline past capacity.

Zoom out: Since its inception, 988 has been contacted nearly 5 million times nationwide.

  • Officials, mental health advocates and call center leaders say they’re pleased with that number.

Yes, but: More than 80% of Americans still aren't familiar with the new hotline, according to a recent National Alliance on Mental Illness survey.

  • And funding remains uncertain — only six states have enacted legislation to create monthly phone line fees to support the system, similar to how communities fund 911.
  • Six more have bills pending, per NAMI's tracker, while others have made general fund appropriations.

The bottom line: "We have to remember, we're at the beginning of what's going to be a marathon, not a sprint," said Chuck Ingoglia, CEO of the National Council for Mental Wellbeing.

  • "It's taken 15 years for 911 to evolve to the kind of system that it is today. We're just one year in."
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