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January 19, 2022

This month, the Multnomah County Behavioral Health Call Center celebrates 20 years of responding to community members in need. The call centre, originally called the Crisis Line, opened on January 7, 2001 to provide immediate support to callers in crisis, referring people to the mental health emergency walk-in clinic and sending a mobile crisis response.

Among the employees who helped launch the call center was mental health consultant Mark Summit.

“In the beginning, we were primarily doing crisis counseling for people who needed that immediate support — and that remains at the core of our work,” Summit said. “Over the years, we have become more of the hub of Multnomah County’s mental health system.”

Staff crammed into lockers in a downtown office building. They leaned behind clunky old monitors, flipped through binders filled with pages of resources, and tripped over the twisted cords of phones, headsets and computers. Summit said he was grateful to work side-by-side with his new colleagues, learning how other providers approach callers and issues. It made him a better advisor.

Over the years, the call center has expanded its scope and mission. In 2012, the call center began helping people connect to behavioral health benefits. In 2017, the call center began performing suicide risk assessments for every caller and brought Washington County residents into its user zone.

In 2018 the call center added a referral line for the crisis assessment and treatment center and the following year added a referral line for Rockwood Respite which is a crisis stabilization center .

The team has grown to include 24 acute care coordinators, nine on-call acute care coordinators, two supervisors, a manager and an office assistant. Together, with support from the County Behavioral Health Division, our call center team works around the clock to help people voice their concerns, explore their options, and connect to community services.

“They do all of this with warmth and compassion,” Health Department Director Ebony Clarke said. “More than that, they bring strong clinical judgment and a really solid knowledge of our local continuum of care.”

For the past 23 months, the call center has played a vital role in the county’s response to COVID-19 and other emergencies. For example, the Center has managed requests for and distribution of pandemic aid for Black, Indigenous and other communities of color. This aid helped cover basic needs such as rent, utilities, transportation and health care. The call center has also established a line for referrals and voluntary admissions to isolation motels. During wildfires, heat events, frosts and variants of COVID-19, the call center has always responded to the needs of the community.

“It’s been quite a ride,” Summit said of the past 20 years.

“Sometimes at the end of a long week, and especially since the pandemic, I have these days where I don’t know if I want to go in,” Summit added.

But he does. Because of what he gets from his job and what he can give.

There is a unique intimacy in a telephone conversation, in times of crisis when people are often more ready for change. It’s an opportunity to help people make big changes in their lives.

The job kept Summit on its toes. During his first decade at the Call Center, not a week went by without him taking on a new challenge, like Forrest Gump and his famous box of chocolates. “You never know what you’re going to get.”

Entering its 21st year, the call center receives an average of nearly 1,400 calls per week. And while its mission has remained unwavering, the reach of support and service has expanded.

“As we look to the next 20 years, we will continue to grow our partnerships and expand our services,” said Christa Jones, who oversees adult safety net programs for the Division of Behavioral Health. “But one thing that will never change is this commitment to providing compassionate, trauma-informed and culturally appropriate services to every member of our community.”

Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury thanked the behavioral health specialists who answered the call.

“For two decades, our call center staff have offered understanding, grace and a way forward to people going through the most difficult times in their lives. And their work has never been more important than during for the past two years as they have helped community members endure the deep trauma and loss of the pandemic.

Their impact goes beyond the number of calls they take and the referrals they make. It lies in the hope that they extend to those who feel hopeless, to their loved ones and to their communities. I am so proud and grateful that the call center is part of the Multnomah County care system.”