BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Call centers in Alabama have seen an uptick in calls to Alabama’s 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, but they don’t have the staff to match.
It’s been about one year since the national launch of the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, phasing out the previous 10-digit number.
Before the launch of 988 last July, Birmingham’s Crisis Center saw about 400 to 500 calls each month. Now, it’s about 2,000. It’s the state’s only 24/7 call center, with 12 operators taking calls from 19 counties.
“I would say, no, it’s not enough. I’m definitely trying to hire people,” Director Emily Roebuck said.
Roebuck said operators can be lifesaving, talking to people in crisis who may be considering suicide.
“It’s really important that someone is there and available to talk to the people that do get to that dangerous point,” Roebuck said.
Roebuck said she hoped to see the legislature approve more funding for Alabama’s 988 Crisis Care Fund. A bill would have implemented a 98-cent monthly surcharge on phone bills, bringing in an estimated $69 million annually for the state’s centers.
At the end of the session, it stalled.
“We didn’t want to get our hopes up,” Roebuck said. “But having that funding would absolutely be helpful just for sustaining the program long term.”
Alabama Department of Mental Health Commissioner Kimberly Boswell said statewide the demand for services is growing even though staffing has not.
“Our answer rate in-state is not where we would like it to be,” Boswell said.
In 2022, the state’s centers served just over 1,000 people in-person and more than 36,000 via calls, chats and texts.
Boswell said about 60% of contacts are answered in-state. The rest roll over to the national hotline, which she says is less attuned to the resources available in Alabama.
“What we get concerned about is we don’t want to create a situation where people call that number and don’t get the help that they need, because then they’ll stop calling.” Boswell said.
Even without that funding, Boswell said there was some good that came from the session. She said the new law eliminating state income taxes on overtime pay will be helpful in hiring and retaining staff.
In addition to the Birmingham location, the two other state crisis care call centers are in Huntsville and Mobile. Two more are set to open in Dothan and Montgomery by the end of this year.