BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - It's been nearly a year since Louisiana was brought to its knees by a mass shooting at a Lafayette movie theater in which two people were left dead and nine others injured. Residents say they never imagined such violence could happen.
However, the executive director of the Crisis Intervention Center (CIC) in Baton Rouge said an open phone line has prevented that tragic scene from playing out again and again.
"We've averted three active shooter situations in the last nine months to a year," said CIC executive director Aaron Blackledge.
Based in the Capitol City, the CIC provides a wide range of services for people who have reached their breaking points or are dealing with trauma. The center answers calls, texts and online messages 24 hours a day, seven days a week from people across the state, including the Shreveport and Lake Charles areas.
While the center is probably best known for its suicide prevention hot line, Blackledge said suicide risks only make up 10 to 15 percent of calls. More often than not, he said the person on the other end of the line is struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues.
The center's clinical approach uses highly trained and certified specialists to help a person move past their crisis and connect them with resources that can help.
"We listen. We tune in, we acknowledge the feelings that are going behind, whether they can't make a house payment or an electricity payment, and we deescalate them from that so they can take the next steps from that and take some sort of action," said clinical supervisor Rick Jackson.
In recent years, the center has observed a number of disturbing trends. First, Blackledge said the number of callers with violent urges is up. Second, the volume of calls has grown tremendously from around 19,000 local calls in 2013 to more than 21,000 calls in 2015.
Blackledge said the increase in calls usually follows cuts in health care.
"There are parts of the state where we take a number of calls where we are seeing four and five times the call volume we were seeing a year ago," Blackledge said. "Those are areas of the state where hospitals or mental health facilities have been closed and these individuals have nowhere to go."
A recent national study ranked Louisiana among the states with the worst access to mental health care. With the need greater than ever, Blackledge said the center hopes to take the lead on establishing a statewide crisis response network.
However, that initiative needs funding, and money is in short supply. The CIC is a non-profit organization and receives no direct funding from the state or the federal government. Grants, stipends and donations make up the center's budget.
For just the greater Baton Rouge area, the cost of providing 24/7 crisis services each year totals around $400,000.
The growing demand for crisis intervention is out pacing their current finances. Blackledge said the center cannot continue running at the capacity it does without additional funding.
He is hopeful the organization can find some new public and private investors, including the state or local municipalities. He pointed to Georgia, where the state spends around $8 million yearly to fully fund crisis intervention resources, as a prime example.
Blackledge added that their data indicates the center's services has saved area hospitals millions of dollars by preventing people in crisis from going to an emergency room, which are not equipped for mental health emergencies.
However, he knows it's a long shot in Louisiana as lawmakers continue to cut and trim to fill the gap of the current budget crisis.
If the center doesn't find the funding it needs, services may have to be scaled back meaning those desperate calls for help could go unanswered.
"I think we're going to see a lot more events where unfortunately folks that have mental illness act out in some way. I don't know what that necessarily means," Blackledge said. "I hope it doesn't mean violence or things of that nature."
If you need crisis counseling, you can call (225) 924-3900 or (225) 924-LSU1 or (800) 437-0303 and also talk online at www.crisischat.org.