Iowa’s response time to 988 crisis calls is good, but staffing is a concern

Foundation 2 Executive Director Emily Blomme works in her office in 2015 in Cedar Rapids. (The Gazette)

Community Crisis Services and Food Bank is one of two nonprofits in eastern Iowa that responds to calls to the 988 suicide prevention number.

Nearly six months after the national suicide prevention crisis number was cut to triple-digit 988 in July, the two nonprofits answering the line in Iowa have been tracking a surge in demand despite high staff turnover.

Foundation 2 in Cedar Rapids is the primary recipient of 988 calls, with all missed calls picked up by CommUnity in Iowa City or sent to an out-of-state emergency call center. CommUnity also primarily handles the chat and text features of 988 in Iowa.

Emily Blomme, executive director of Foundation 2, said the lifeline receives around 1,450 calls each month, more than double the average calls received before the phone number was shortened. Foundation 2 picks up 91% of these calls within the first 12 seconds of the phone ringing.

“Making sure Iowans are served by Iowans is really important to us. We do well with that sort of thing. I think because we’ve been working on a hotline for so long, we have a very deep understanding of what it takes from an onboarding and training perspective. A lot of these very tangible things haven’t changed from other lines we’ve done in the transition to 988,” Blomme said.

Iowa was well positioned to respond to the surge in calls that accompanied the 988 rollout, as Foundation 2 and CommUnity had previously done similar work with the National Lifeline for Suicide Prevention and with YourLifeIowa, a health line. statewide wiretapping, for several years.

“Iowa was lucky because we have two crisis centers that have tremendous experience in crisis services, whereas in other states there have been real attempts to build infrastructure. We’re lucky to have some of this in place before, so it made the transition smoother – not smooth – but the transition to 988 was smoother,” said Drew Martel, Clinical Director and responsible for training for Foundation 2. .

Emotionally exhausting work

Both nonprofits significantly increased their staff prior to the rollout of 988 to prepare for the increase in call volume – an increase seen nationwide. Nonprofit leaders say that while they’ve been able to keep up with demand, there’s been a lot of turnover due to burnout and other factors.

“Crisis work is a niche and some people go into this profession and then realize it’s just not a good fit for them for one reason or another, but we’re really well staffed. Over the past six months, a lot of the work we’ve been doing is looking at the volume of chats, texts, and calls we receive. Are we still adequately staffed? Do we need to add more staff? And what kind of support do we also need to add so that these staff can do the job? said Adrianne Korbakes, COO of Community.

Being a phone counselor is often an entry-level job in crisis work, so it’s not uncommon for employees to simply move on to new opportunities, Blomme said. It’s also emotionally draining work, without a lot of follow-up opportunities.

“If you imagine, for eight to 10 hours a day, the phone rings and picks up, not knowing what’s on the other end of the line. There’s a natural difficulty that comes with that,” Blomme said. “And we don’t always have the opportunity to come full circle. Rarely, in fact. They know the calls that were really tough, but they don’t know the calls where they really transformed someone’s life, and really gave them the tools they needed to feel better or do better. So I think that’s a very difficult part of the job.

Both centers regularly hire counselors across the state. Remote work options are available as well as in-office work.

Since 988 is often an entry point for other social services, the increase in calls has also put a strain on other community crisis services, Blomme said.

“Honestly, we don’t have enough bodies to cover 100% of our mobile needs in a crisis, or 100% of our telephone needs in a crisis. The timing is really bad as more and more people need mental health support, staffing issues prevent us from being able to really have all the people we need to meet the demand,” said Blomme. .

“We know that crisis services across the state are under strain. 988 is an entry point, but we also refer people to mobile crisis in other service areas and they also have staffing issues. 988 in theory is great. It’s just trying to fit it all together, it’s complicated.“

Ongoing funding

Funding for 988 has been approved nationally for the first two years of the rollout, giving states time to establish a more permanent funding stream. So far, Iowa hasn’t introduced a permanent funding plan, in part because officials are waiting to collect more data before deciding how much funding the service actually needs, Korbakes said.

“I really hope we can collect enough data to make more informed decisions,” Korbakes said. “So far I think we’ve been so focused on getting things set up and running and having them operational as they are, it’s hard…to think about things at the end of the day. .”

When lawmakers eventually approve a funding plan, Blomme and Korbakes said they hope it will include enough money to not only keep the service as it is, but also to increase infrastructure to bolster the service and its connection to other services, such as in-person crisis response.

“We specifically requested funding tied to mobile crisis dispatch software, where we would be able to see on a system where the mobile crisis teams are in state, see who is online, be able to send them “, via text or an app, the information they need about the address they’re going to, the location, that sort of thing. That would be really, really great,” Blomme says.

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