Handling of mental health helpline sparks lawsuit in Tampa Bay

Tampa Bay Thrives has sued a New York nonprofit hired to take calls for the local mental health group, claiming it failed to do its job.

Tampa Bay Thrives launched the “Let’s Talk” helpline last year to assist Hillsborough County residents with mental health and substance use issues.

The local nonprofit hired Vibrant Emotional Health, based in New York, to answer confidential Let’s Talk calls, direct people to mental health resources and follow up with those in distress. Tampa Bay Thrives agreed to pay the New York nonprofit about $2.1 million to answer a Projected 14,000 calls over a year, records show.

But Tampa Bay Thrives now claims that Vibrant Emotional Health breached the contract and failed to provide adequate services, according to a June lawsuit, which offered no specifics on how Let’s Talk callers may have been affected.

Tampa Bay Thrives wants a judge to rule it doesn’t need to pay the New York nonprofit, which is well known for running the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on behalf of the federal government.

Related: Questions about the 988 mental health hotline?

Vibrant Emotional Health has argued that Tampa Bay Thrives “reneged on the deal” and filed the lawsuit “apparently seeking judicial cover for its own breach of contract.”

Tampa Bay Thrives “has paid just a fraction of what it contractually owes, stiffing Vibrant to the tune of over seven figures,” Kyle Robisch, a Tampa attorney who represents Vibrant Emotional Health, said in court papers filed in the Middle District of Florida. Robisch didn’t respond to a phone message.

“We look forward to pursuing amicable resolution of this case” at a mediation session in September, Vibrant Emotional Health said in a statement.

Related: Hillsborough, BayCare to spend $4 million on mental health needs

Carrie Zeisse, president and CEO of Tampa Bay Thrives, referred to questions to the nonprofit’s attorney, Joseph Southron of Tampa.

Southron said Vibrant Emotional Health is no longer handling Let’s Talk, but otherwise declined to comment on the lawsuit. The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay is now answering calls, he said.

“There’s never been any downtime,” he said.

The crisis center is focused on Let’s Talk calls from Hillsborough and Pasco counties for now, and the program may expand in the future, said spokesperson Ken Gibson.

Let’s Talk can be reached at (844) 968-6529. The free 24/7 helpline launched as a pilot project in July 2021.

“The pandemic has exacerbated the need to address mental health in the Tampa Bay region,” Zeisse said in a news release last year.

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The Hillsborough County Commission in February agreed to provide $1.9 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to Tampa Bay Thrives, which was founded in 2019. The money will be distributed through August 2024 and will allow the nonprofit to expand Let’s Talk, provide short-term virtual counseling and address mental health stigma through a media campaign. BayCare Health System said it has matched the county’s spending with a $1.9 million donation.

Related: Partnership expands Hillsborough mental health services

Tampa Bay Thrives’ board of directors includes prominent local leaders such as Tommy Inzina, outgoing president and CEO of BayCare; John Couris, president and CEO of Tampa General Hospital; Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco; and Clearwater Police Chief Daniel Slaughter, according to its website.

Need help?

Tampa Bay Thrives’ Let’s Talk helpline can be reached at (844) 968-6529 (844-YOU-OKAY).

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call or text 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or chat with someone online at 988lifeline.org.

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