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Suicide hotline forced to close

A suicide telephone hotline that has served Pasco County for 10 years will end June 30 due to lack of money.

"It's a regrettable move," said Pat Gerard, executive director of Helpline. "We've been working . . . to regain some (funds), but it just didn't work out."

Helpline is part of Family Resources Inc., a non-profit agency in St. Petersburg that specializes in family and social services. The hotline began in Pinellas County and expanded into Pasco in 1983.

The program was being financed primarily by the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services. Cutbacks last year forced it to go from around-the-clock service in Pasco to 11 hours a day, Monday through Friday.

Family Resources also had to lay off staff members and began to rely heavily on volunteers to handle the three Pasco phone lines, Gerard said. "We just tried to hang in there and tried to hang in there," she said.

Problems began to affect the Pinellas side of the service. A GTE study showed 46 percent of daytime Pinellas callers were getting a busy signal, said Gerard.

"It was just a matter of having only so many people to answer the phone," she said.

The decision to end the Pasco service came about three months ago when the last of the HRS funds was exhausted. "We were just never a high priority for them," Gerard said.

United Way of Pasco County plans to start an information and referral telephone service on July 1, which Gerard said should help fill the gap. However, "that remains to be seen," she said. "I have faith in them to provide good service, but it's going to take a while for them to get up and running."

Jim Snyder, United Way executive director, said his group has been preparing for several months and will start the First Call For Help service on time. It will be available from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.

The chief difference between the two services is that First Call will have no crisis intervention counseling, such as suicide prevention. "That is a significant difference," Gerard said. "You don't think about (having) a crisis line until you need it."

Snyder said having such a service is still a possibility.

"I can't tell you now when we're going to have a crisis line," he said. "It might be immediately or it might be two or three months down the line. It depends on resources."

The Helpline in West Pasco, (813) 848-5555, will become First Call on July 1. The rest of Pasco will be served by (800) 848-5542. After June 30, the Helpline numbers for Central Pasco, (813) 228-8686, and East Pasco, (904) 567-1111, no longer will be in service.

Other 24-hour suicide prevention/crisis intervention hotlines are available. They are the Harbor Behavioral Health Care Institute (formerly Human Development Center of Pasco) at (813) 849-9988 and Suicide: A Crisisline & Referral Service, a national service based in Los Angeles, at (800) 827-7571.