December 8, 2022

Contra Mare

Slick Healthy

Questions about the 988 mental health hotline? Here are answers.

Editor’s note: This story includes discussion of suicide. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, resources are available to help. Please see the box below.

There’s a new way to reach a crisis counselor in Tampa Bay if you’re contemplating suicide or experiencing a mental health issue: 988.

The national three-digit hotline launched Saturday.

Here’s what residents should know about the number, which is already seeing a spike in calls, according to a local nonprofit.

What is 988?

The dialing code is an easy-to-remember way to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

More than 200 call centers across the U.S. answer the Lifeline. There are a dozen centers in Florida and three in Tampa Bay.

People can call or text 988. They also can use an online chat tool to contact the Lifeline.

The original suicide crisis hotline, 1-800-273-8255, is still being answered.

Who should call?

Those contemplating suicide or experiencing a mental health or substance use issue can call 988.

People can call 988 on behalf of others, too.

How is this different from 911 and 211? Call 911 for assistance from firefighters, police or EMS. 211 is for general information on health and social service organizations.

“911 is designed to get as much information as possible and send somebody to you,” said Clara Reynolds, CEO and president of the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay. “911 operators can’t spend an hour de-escalating somebody. That’s our role.”

Related: 988 suicide crisis line is about to launch. Is Tampa Bay ready?

What happens when you call 988?

Free crisis counselors pick up the phone. They listen, provide confidential support and direct you to local resources on suicide prevention or mental health.

They also may dispatch a mobile response team to your location. Florida funds 39 of these teams, according to the Department of Children and Families. They’re staffed by mental health professionals — not police officers.

The teams provide free crisis intervention services and operate 24/7. Within an hour, they travel to wherever you are.

They can initiate a Baker Act, but their goal is to “prevent unnecessary psychiatric hospitalizations.” They try to divert people away from emergency rooms, juvenile justice facilities or jail by connecting them to community-based mental health care providers, according to the Central Florida Behavioral Health Network and the Department of Children and Families.

If someone, though, is threatening to harm themselves or others during a 988 call, a counselor will loop in 911 to dispatch emergency responders, said Micki Thompson, CEO and president of 211 Tampa Bay Cares. This is called an “active rescue.”

“The vast majority of suicide hotline calls do not require this step to be taken,” said Emily Weir, spokeswoman for the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, in an email.

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Who answers 988 in Tampa Bay?

People are routed to Lifeline centers based on their phone number’s area code — not their current location.

For example, if you live in Tampa Bay but use a cellphone with a New York area code, you’ll be directed to a center in the Northeast.

Handling calls from Tampa Bay area codes are nonprofits 211 Tampa Bay Cares, the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay and Personal Enrichment Through Mental Health Services.

If the nonprofits are overwhelmed and unable to answer, callers will automatically be routed to a national backup center.

This isn’t ideal because it will often take longer to address a mental health crisis.

“Somebody will answer that phone,” Reynolds said. “Obviously, though, this is designed to be answered locally.”

What’s the goal of 988?

The three-digit number is easier to remember than the original suicide hotline — so advocates hope people will call more frequently and seek help when grappling with emotional distress or suicidal thoughts.

But they also hope 988 will help these individuals “get a behavioral health response” instead of a police response when experiencing a mental health crisis.

Before 988, residents with mental health issues were calling 911 because they didn’t know what else to do, said Amy McClellan, vice president of the Florida Mental Health Advocacy Coalition.

“We’re going to be able to get to people earlier in their crisis and be able to de-escalate them (with 988),” Reynolds said, “so they don’t need law enforcement intervention — ideally so they don’t even have to be Baker Acted.”

This could reduce 911 call volumes and save police time, Reynolds and McClellan said.

It also could prevent tragedy: More than 20% of those fatally shot by U.S. police since 2015 had a known mental illness, according to a Washington Post database.

Are there obstacles to calling 988?

Potentially at Tampa Bay office buildings and businesses. These locations should ensure that people can call 988 using their in-house phone systems, Thompson said.

IT departments, she said, must route 988 to the original hotline, 1-800-273-8255 — otherwise callers could hear dead air or get a busy signal.

Are there funding problems?

Tampa Bay nonprofits are still waiting to receive federal grant money so they can hire employees to solely focus on answering 988 calls.

“We may not see any funding until September, which is a little scary on our end,” said Reynolds, whose center has already reported an uptick in Lifeline calls since 988 went live.

Like the call centers, mobile response teams also need more money, said Alan Davidson, chief operating officer at the Central Florida Behavioral Health Network.

Related: Tampa Bay teens are depressed and anxious. Social media deserves blame.

In a letter Thursday to Gov. Ron DeSantis, advocates and local government officials urged him to use a component of the American Rescue Plan to obtain more than $100 million in federal funds to support mobile response teams.

When asked for comment, a Department of Children and Families spokeswoman didn’t specifically address or mention the letter. She said in an email that DeSantis included over $15.5 million in this year’s state budget to expand mobile response teams.

What do these funding issues mean for callers?

You’ll likely have to wait to speak with a counselor if Tampa Bay call centers are overwhelmed.

Thompson encouraged residents to text 988 or use the online chat tool to reach the Lifeline. That’s because it might take a “little bit longer” for the nonprofits to answer calls.

She stressed, though, that if someone calls 988, they’ll eventually be answered.

“We’re here. We care,” she said. “Please reach out if you need help.”

If you need help

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call or text 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or chat with someone online at 988lifeline.org.