Amid a surge in need, Board of Commissioners adds staff to County’s Behavioral Health Call Center

September 29, 2022

The Board of Commissioners on Thursday, Sept. 29, approved the Behavioral Health Division’s request to add four full-time employees to the Multnomah County Behavioral Health Call Center, which has seen a significant increase in calls and crisis response in the last year.

Overall calls to the Call Center have climbed 30%, officials said, including a 38% increase in 911 transfers — calls when a 911 dispatcher identifies a behavioral health issue of concern and transfers the call to the Call Center. Mobile crisis response callouts have also increased, up 16.6%. 

“We experienced increased acuity of symptoms, isolation, substance use, trauma and a host of unmet needs,” said Christa Jones, senior manager of the Behavioral Health Division’s Community Mental Health Program.

The Board’s vote allows the Health Department to use $647,666 of available funds to fund the four positions and provide behavioral health crisis services through the Multnomah County Call Center. 

Braidy R. Estevez, finance manager for Behavioral Health and Corrections Health said the funds had not yet been allocated but were available for future contracted services. Behavioral Health determined the Call Center expansion would be the best use of the funds. 

Jones said the rise in demand for the Call Center was a result of unmet needs due to staffing issues, agency closures, and barriers to treatment and other services. 

“This volume at current staffing levels is not sustainable,” said Jones. 

Adding the four employees will provide:

  • 1 Mental Health Consultant, Latino/a/e with language KSA (Knowledge, Skills and Abilities) to support the Latino/a/e call line.
  • 1 Mental Health Consultant, co-located at the City of Portland’s Bureau of Emergency Communications (the bureau that handles 911 dispatching for Multnomah County)
  • 1 Mental Health Consultant, to support the general call center line
  • 1 Program Supervisor, to support increase in staffing and support administrative duties

Jones recognizes that the Call Center is vital in helping vulnerable individuals in the community.

“Community members use our Call Center as a way to be connected to services when they are scared, lonely and confused,” she said. “They use it when they’re confused or when they need a referral to County and community services.”

Adding the employees will help in three specific areas: shorter wait times when people call, additional culturally specific services (including language services), and increased coordination and assistance with reducing calls to 911. 

Currently, the average speed of answering calls is 40.8 seconds, with a call abandonment rate of 6%. With more employees, the goal is to increase the call center’s ability to answer calls within 30 seconds and reduce the abandonment rate.

The staffing will also allow for an increase in culturally specific and language services. The new positions will allow the Call Center to hire bilingual/bicultural staff and build culturally specific services by staffing the Latinx line for some hours in the week. The line has been offline for several years.

“We will continue to prioritize this need as new resources come together,” said Jones.

Having an employee co-located at the Bureau of Emergency Communications will help reduce the number of calls that end up at  911 when the central issue is a behavioral health need, providing support for callers who are in need of crisis services.