If you or someone you know is in emotional distress or a suicidal crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. Central Texans can also call 512-472-HELP for local support. Crisis counselors are available 24/7.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Texas is still working to increase staffing in its 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline centers following the launch of the 988 number, which has increased accessibility to people seeking 24/7 support for themselves and others in crisis.

The 988 helpline number launched July 16, and call volumes increased following the launch. Across Texas, over 15,700 calls were routed in Texas in July. About 9,000 of these calls were answered in-state at Texas’ five Lifeline centers—four of which are state-contracted. Other calls were answered at other centers out of Texas.

More mental health professionals were hired before the 988 launch “to address the surge in calls” in Texas, but a Texas Health and Human Services spokesperson said the centers have seen difficulties in attracting and retaining these staff members. 

The state has 19 vacancies as of July 31, and 80 total employees to answer 988 calls.

A spokesperson said the four HHSC-contracted centers hired and trained new employees in August to answer the increased volume of calls. 

Integral Care in Austin is one of the five call centers. It answered 635 calls in the two weeks before 988 launched. In the following two weeks, it answered 1,164 Lifeline calls—an 83% increase.

The increase in calls means more people are getting help, but Integral Care’s helpline and crisis line program manager Jaime Parker said this also signals more people need mental health support.

“I think we appreciate that people have more access. But we recognize we don’t want people to be in crisis. But we do want to be able to provide that emotional support if needed,” Parker said. “So anyone can call. It’s better to call than not call.”

Integral Care received about 10 new positions to prepare for 988, and Parker hopes this number will grow in the next fiscal year. In total, they have about 40 staff members in full-time, part-time and as-needed positions.

Parker said call takers used to answer about 20 calls a day. They now can answer up to 30 or 40 calls daily. To mitigate burnout, Integral Care has increased the number of breaks for staff and increased the time between calls so staff don’t feel rushed.

Dr. Vanessa Kennedy, the director of psychology at Driftwood Recovery, said the 988 helpline is a key part of after-care and safety plans for clients after they leave the Hays County center’s care. 

“It’s easy to remember, especially when you’re in the midst of a stressful situation or crisis where it’s really difficult to kind of think clearly,” Kennedy said. 

She said their recovery center saw consistent increases in people requesting mental health services, additional services and residential care because of pandemic effects. She added that more clients are requesting help with a focus on mental health rather than a focus on addiction treatment or 12-step programs. 

“We’re seeing that they’re educated on mental health issues and have a greater awareness of how their mental health impacts their addiction,” Kennedy said.