© 2024 All Rights reserved WUSF
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
You Count on Us, We Count on You: Donate to WUSF to support free, accessible journalism for yourself and the community.

Why a huge increase in calls to the 988 mental health lifeline in South Florida is a good thing

 A staff member at 211 Palm Beach and Treasure Coast answer calls to residents who call their lifeline for mental health services.
211 Helpline Palm Beach and Treasure Coast
A staff member at 211 Palm Beach and Treasure Coast answer calls from residents who seek mental health services.

In the year since the 10-digit line changed to 988, one South Florida nonprofit has seen a 50% increase in calls. Lack of affordable housing and the pandemic are among the drivers.

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

It's been a year since the 10-digit Suicide and Crisis Lifeline number changed to 988 — and calls directed to one South Florida nonprofit have increased by 50%.

Last July, the Federal Communications Commission shortened the number to make it easier for people to remember, with the overall goal of expanding access to mental health services.

Crisis centers across the U.S. fielded 5 million calls, chats and texts to 988 in its first year, up 35% compared to the old 10-digit line, according to federal officials.

Local organizations who handle the calls are seeing that uptick. In South Florida, the nonprofit 211 Palm Beach and Treasure Coast said calls have increased by 50% since the change to 988.

That's a good thing, according to the organization's CEO and president Sharon L'Herrou. She said that the new number has increased awareness of their resources.

"The primary response from the community has been positive in that there is a feeling that having a shorter and easier-to-remember number is going to be better in order to allow people to access services more quickly and easily," she said.

The 988 number is available to those who are struggling with mental health or may be thinking about ending their life. Anyone can call or text the number to be connected to a mental health counselor in your area.

The local nonprofit maintains a resource directory of all community services to connect people with the help they need.

If a caller is in crisis, the goal is to deescalate the situation, L'Herrou said. If someone needs to be dispatched, 211 Palm Beach County and Treasure Coast offers a mobile response team with a behavioral health professional.

"We want to make sure that we're doing what the caller wants," she said. "We don't want to retraumatize people by doing something that is not their preference."

Besides mental health sources, residents can also call 211, which focuses more on information and resource provision. People who are dealing with job loss or issues over affordable housing, for example, can seek help via 211. However, people can dial either 211 or 988 to access trained team members who will connect you to the correct service.

"Many of our staff have been through their own struggles, and that's what calls them to do this work. So the people answering the phone do this only because they care. So, if you are struggling, we are here for you," L'Herrou said.
More than 50 years ago, a local therapist started what would later become 211 Palm Beach and Treasure Coast. What has started as a substance abuse prevention number has grown into an accredited crisis center.

"The dynamics in communities are always changing. And so organizations like ours are always trying to pivot to make sure that we meet people's needs in the best way possible," she said.

L'Herrou said that the community they serve has been grappling with the stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. A lack of affordable housing and staffing shortages among industries are just some of the issues exacerbating the mental health of the community, she said.

"One of the things that many communities are working on are strategies and activities to destigmatize mental health and making sure that people understand that mental health is part of health," she added.

"We want to make sure that there's access — that there's parity for mental health treatment alongside physical health treatment."