Between 2000 and 2021, suicide rates increased about 36% in the United States. Just over a year ago, the 988 number launched as the new suicide and crisis lifeline. The launch of the line and the dramatic increase in call volume it received over the previous 800-273-TALK number shed a light both locally and nationally on the system of care that is in place for individuals who are struggling with thoughts of suicide. The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay plays a significant local role in this system because we answer 988 calls for Hillsborough and Charlotte counties. We also provide Baker Act transport services to local crisis stabilization units through our TransCare division.
While there are services for people struggling with thoughts of suicide, significant gaps that can prevent people from obtaining the care they need remain.
To start, the system is underfunded. As an example, the creation of 988 and its June 16, 2022, implementation date was a federal mandate. When the number launched, there was a delay in the funds allocated to support the dramatic increase in calls. One year later, the system is being supported through temporary block grant funding, but long-term funding is still in question. In addition, government reimbursements to providers for services such as therapy, Baker Act transports and crisis stabilization rarely increase and do not keep up with the providers’ operational costs. In the private sector, many private insurance companies offer limited or inadequate benefits to customers for vital services like therapy.
Communication and collaboration are also key. The crisis system of care is comprised of many providers. It doesn’t help people in our community when services are done in a silo. The 988 contact centers, therapists, medical doctors and crisis stabilization units need better communication and access to information so those in crisis can connect to the right support they need the first time they reach out for help.
That said, there is so much good work being done to improve the system. The various 988 providers in the state have been adding staff to meet the increased 988 call volume. Locally, the Crisis Center was able to answer 9,545 calls to 988 over 12 months. In the year before the 988 launch, we answered 3,029 calls to the original 800-273-TALK number.
Local law enforcement has started to change its mindset, processes and services to divert behavioral health situations from the criminal justice system toward behavioral health care. Locally, multiple agencies have hired behavioral health professionals to work alongside both law enforcement officers and 911 dispatch staff to ensure the best and safest possible solution.
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The federal and state government have started to focus more on suicide prevention and behavioral health care. This year, the Florida Legislature ratified the Commission on Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder, where I serve as a commissioner and where I chair its suicide prevention subcommittee. The Florida Department of Children and Families is leading the effort to develop Florida’s next strategic plan for suicide prevention. At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently announced an additional $200 million in national funding for the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.
So with all this talk of systems and government, what can you do to help? The fact is, you are the most important part of this process.
- We need to combat stigma associated with suicide prevention and behavioral health. Be certain to encourage someone who might be struggling to reach out for help.
- Check in with your family and friends if you have concerns about them.
- Take any mention of suicide seriously. Don’t disregard their emotions or what they are saying.
- Contact 988 if you or someone you know needs help. The people who answer these calls are trained to provide immediate emotional support and connections to community resources.
- Combat misinformation and misunderstanding about 988 on social media. There is helpful information about 988 at samhsa.gov/find-help/988.
- Call your state and federal representatives and let them know you want them to support suicide prevention legislation.
In 2021, 3,325 people died by suicide in Florida. Many people reading this have experienced the shock and trauma of suddenly losing a family member, friend or co-worker. It’s up to all of us to reduce the stigma and improve the crisis system.
Clara Reynolds is president and CEO of the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay and serves as a commissioner on Florida’s Commission on Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder.