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

Health officials expect a flood of calls to the easy-to-remember number.
Thomas Young, right, takes a call from someone in need of counseling at the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay in 2019. The crisis center is now preparing for a flood of calls to the 988 suicide crisis line.
Thomas Young, right, takes a call from someone in need of counseling at the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay in 2019. The crisis center is now preparing for a flood of calls to the 988 suicide crisis line.
Published Jul. 14|Updated Jul. 14

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.

Starting Saturday, Tampa Bay residents contemplating suicide or experiencing a mental health crisis can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline using a new three-digit dialing code.

People can call or text 988 to speak with a crisis counselor, but funding issues are plaguing the launch and raising questions about whether Florida and other states are ready for an influx of calls to the number.

So far, Tampa Bay nonprofits haven’t hired employees to solely focus on answering 988 calls. They’re relying on federal grant money to do so, but haven’t received the funds yet, even though 988 goes live Saturday.

This will pose a challenge. Health officials expect a flood of calls due to the easy-to-remember three-digit number, which is simpler than the original suicide prevention hotline, 1-800-273-8255.

A few states have passed laws that establish monthly fees on cellphone lines to pay for 988, but similar legislation wasn’t introduced during Florida’s most recent legislative session.

Government and nonprofit leaders are downplaying expectations for Saturday’s rollout, describing it as a “soft launch” or “transition.”

Related: U.S. surgeon general declares ‘youth mental health crisis’ amid COVID

“When you hear 911, you think, ‘I need some help. Someone come to the rescue.’ ... That’s what we want for 988,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra during a briefing with reporters earlier this month. “988 won’t be a busy signal and 988 won’t put you on hold. You will get help.”

But that’s an “aspiration,” Becerra acknowledged.

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” added Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, assistant secretary for mental health and substance use.

In 2020, the Lifeline received more than 121,000 calls from Florida, according to federal officials and Vibrant Emotional Health, a New York nonprofit that manages the hotline.

“‘What keeps you up at night?’ This would be high on the list: That we’re going to have 988 calls coming in in such a huge capacity that we’re going to be stretched to meet them,” said Clara Reynolds, CEO and president of the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, which answers Lifeline calls.

Micki Thompson, CEO and president of 211 Tampa Bay Cares, a 23-person call center, said if a local Lifeline center is overwhelmed, callers will be connected to a network of backup centers.

But this could force people with suicidal thoughts to wait on the phone as they consider self-harm.

“They will be — eventually — answered,” she said.

What is 988?

In 2005, the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration launched the nation’s 24/7 suicide prevention hotline, 1-800-273-8255. (This number will still be answered after 988 rolls out).

To make it easier to reach a crisis counselor, former President Donald Trump signed a bipartisan bill in late 2020 designating 988 as the new dialing code.

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Handling 988 calls from Tampa Bay area codes will be nonprofits 211 Tampa Bay Cares, the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay and Personal Enrichment Through Mental Health Services.

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

“We’re going to be building capacity over the next year or two to answer everything,” Thompson said.

‘People are not ready for this’

Earlier this year, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration awarded millions of dollars to states to help launch 988.

But Tampa Bay call centers haven’t received allocations of this grant money yet.

The Florida Department of Children and Families has received a $5.2 million federal grant to divvy up between the state’s 12 call centers over the next two years, Thompson said. During the current fiscal year, the agency is also expected to distribute at least $8 million from a federal block grant to help the centers hire staff.

Locally, the money will be routed from the Department of Children and Families to Central Florida Behavioral Health Network, a nonprofit. Then the funds will flow to the individual call centers. But the state agency hasn’t confirmed what the local allocations will be, said Alan Davidson, chief operating officer at the behavioral health network. The department didn’t respond to questions from the Tampa Bay Times.

The timing of the 988 launch is “just unfortunate,” Davidson said. Throughout the rest of July, and possibly August, local call centers may be unable to hire and train staff focused on 988.

“We may not see any funding until September, which is a little scary on our end,” said Reynolds, who leads a 35-person call center. They answered more than 6,200 Lifeline calls last year.

Related: Tampa Bay first responders open up about mental toll of frontline

The state estimates it will cost the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay about $1.7 million to manage 988 in its first year, according to a Department of Children and Families report obtained by the Times.

The report said it will cost 211 Tampa Bay Cares about $1.8 million.

Amy McClellan, vice president of the Florida Mental Health Advocacy Coalition, offered a grim assessment: “It’s the same, actually, around most of the country — people are not ready for this. So it’s going to roll out slowly.”

Call centers will receive federal funding in the short term.

But Becerra, the health and human services secretary, said states will eventually be responsible for supporting 988.

Some states will fund 988 the same way they fund 911: Colorado, Nevada, Virginia and Washington have passed laws to establish monthly fees on cellphone lines to support 988, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Washington’s fee, for example, is $0.24. It will increase to $0.40 in January. The fee is expected to generate $36.1 million in fiscal year 2023, according to the state.

During the Florida Legislature’s most recent session, lawmakers didn’t introduce legislation to create a 988 fee.

Spokespeople for Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, didn’t respond to questions.

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office directed questions to the Department of Children and Families, which didn’t respond.

If you need help

Need help? If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, reach out to the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255; call or text 988 starting on Saturday; or chat with someone online at 988lifeline.org.

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