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A year of 988: Austin call center sees increase in crisis calls

Almost a year after the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline was simplified from a 10-digit number to a 3-digit one, thousands more have called for help.

AUSTIN, Texas — Almost a year ago, the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline was simplified from a 10-digit number to a 3-digit one. That number is 988. 

Integral Care, Austin-Travis County's mental health authority, has a call center where 988 calls are routed. 

While the crisis hotline number has always existed, since the launch of the 3-digit number, mental health professionals say more people are picking up their phones because it's easier.

"We get all types of calls at the hotline," said Karen Duran, an Integral Care hotline supervisor. "I think that's awesome about the hotline. We can help someone if they're, you know, having a tough day. They're having, you know, an emotionally draining day, panic attacks. And, of course, you know, what we're known for is ... [helping] people that are experiencing suicidal ideation. We can help get them back to safety."

As of January 2022, Integral Care was answering 988 calls for 76 counties, including Bexar County in the San Antonio area. It began answering calls for the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline in 2012.

However, in 2012, there was only the 10-digit number. Since the creation of the 3-digit number, Duran said calls to the hotline have increased by about 45% in Central Texas. 

In May of fiscal year 2022, integral Care answered 1,831 calls through the lifeline. In May of fiscal year 2023, that number increased to 3,668 calls through 988.

This has helped take a burden off of 911 operators as they continue to deal with staffing issues. It has also helped lift a burden off of emergency teams out on the field.

"We have been able to help navigate the calls to where it doesn't need an emergency response for about 97% of the calls we receive," Duran said. "That includes, you know, people with suicidal ideation, but [also] people with panic attacks, people that, you know, maybe they don't have support systems built into their everyday lives."

Because the number of calls has grown so much, Duran said Integral Care is actively expanding its team. 

KVUE also asked Duran whether the increase in calls has affected her own mental health and that of her fellow call takers.

"Taking mental health calls can be, you know, a little difficult," Duran said. "But that's something that I love about Integral Care, is that they place so much value in mental health for our clinicians as well. We get great benefits, but also they provide ... ample time for us to take time off if we need that. Our benefits allow us to have therapy if we need to, so that we can keep up with our mental health."

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