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Crisis Center of Tampa Bay sees a huge uptick in calls in the first year of 988

Man sits in a cubicle staring at a computer screen and wearing a headset. It's a crisis call center.
Crisis Center of Tampa Bay
Staff with the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay have responded to thousands of 988 calls since the lifeline launched last July.

The three-digit number was launched to make it easier for people in crisis to access help. Crisis Center CEO Clara Reynolds says the spike in calls suggests mental health challenges persist for many.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, you can get help by calling 988 or visiting the lifeline website.

The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay says calls have soared since the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline launched in the U.S. just over one year ago, replacing a 10-digit number to help people experiencing mental health emergencies.

The organization has taken more than 9,500 calls to 988 for Hillsborough and Charlotte counties since July 2022, up from roughly 3,000 calls the year before when the old lifeline was still in place.

“When you’re living this day-in and day out, you get the sense that it’s busy, but not until you really look at the year-over-year — we have seen a 215% increase in the number of people reaching out on 988 vs. the 10-digit line,” said Clara Reynolds, the center’s president and CEO.

Nationally, there have been 5 million calls, chats and texts to the new lifeline in its first year.

A "behavioral health tsunami," especially for young people

Changing to a three-digit number made it easier to remember, which Reynolds said is likely contributing to an increase in people seeking help.

But the spike also suggests increased mental health challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic have not eased, Reynolds said.

Other stressors, including Hurricane Ian, the rising cost of living and culture wars are adding strain for some members of the community.

“This behavioral health tsunami is still with us and people are still really struggling, particularly our youth and young adults,” Reynolds said. “We've seen increases across the board, but certainly from our youth and young adults.”

Reports released this year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show rates of suicide and depressionamong young people have risen in recent decades for a variety of reasons.

Social media campaigns marketing 988 may be resonating with younger callers and inspiring them to reach out, Reynolds said.

The center also saw an increase in young people calling in distress relating to their gender identity, which Reynolds said peaked around the legislative session. State lawmakers passed a series of bills that restrict transgender rights, which Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law in May.

 Woman stands inside a call center near desks with computers. Other employees sit at cubicles in the background. The ceiling tiles are painted with murals.
Stephanie Colombini
Clara Reynolds, CEO of the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, says many area residents are struggling, as evidenced by the sharp increase in calls to 988 since the lifeline launched last year.

More staff needed to meet demand

The influx in calls to 988 was immediate, said Reynolds. As with many crisis centers around the country, staff in Tampa struggled to meet the demand.

The federal government distributed funding to states to help local call centers manage the 988 rollout, but it took a couple months for entities like the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay to receive the money.

The center used the funds to hire more staff, but Reynolds said those workers had to spend months in training before they were ready to take calls.

“The first six months was like really very difficult, it was all-hands-on-deck,” Reynolds said. “The staff were incredible, doing just incredible work, because remember 988 isn’t the only line we answer here.

"We answer a plethora of other lines for people in crisis — those couldn’t go unanswered, obviously, because if those went unanswered it would only explode more, 988, so we really had to balance all those lines.”

Things have improved since then. In addition to hiring more full-time staff to focus on 988, Reynolds said the Crisis Center has also partnered with the University of South Florida and the University of Tampa to bring on paid interns to support the team.

Staff who take 988 calls serve as listening ears for those experiencing mental health emergencies and assess the severity of the crisis in order to guide them through it, Reynolds explained.

“Our goal is to, at the end of that call — whether that call is 20 minutes long, 30 minutes long or two hours long — is to get you with a plan of what better can look like,” Raynolds said.

In rare cases, law enforcement may be dispatched to intervene if someone is actively attempting suicide.

Crisis Center of Tampa Bay officials said it receives the fourth-highest volume of 988 calls in Florida with a call answer rate of 80%.

The statewide average as of late May was 74%, according to data published on the 988 website by Vibrant Emotional Health, the nonprofit that administers 988 nationally.

It's a significant improvement from last fall, when Florida's call answer rate was close to 50%, but it still trails behind most other states in the country.

If callers dial 988 and a local center is too busy, they get directed to a national backup network.

Reynolds urged all in need to dial for help.

“You don’t have to face this alone,” she said.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.