I remember the anticipation of receiving my first call on the NAMI HelpLine. My heart was racing, my hands were sweating. I was fearful that a help-seeker might judge or react explosively to every word I used or intonation I chose. I had never worked on a helpline before. I had previous experience in customer service, but never in such an intimate capacity — one where I was tasked with finding and recommending resources that could potentially revitalize and change a caller’s life.
When the phone rang, I picked up, expecting someone to yell at me before I was even able to introduce myself. “Hi, this is the NAMI HelpLine, my name is Maria, how can I help?” I answered timidly. On the other end of the line, I heard the voice of an elderly woman who had been crying, desperate for help for her daughter with schizoaffective disorder. The woman felt like she exhausted every resource and needed more support.
I felt her pain; I have had my own experiences with schizoaffective disorder, and watched a family member decline slowly, eventually becoming unable to live independently. I spoke openly about my experiences with her, making sure she knew I was actively listening to her and empathized. Throughout the 40-minute phone call, the woman calmed down, and I suggested additional avenues for her to take to get help. I assured her that if she ever called back, we would help her. She thanked me graciously, and I took a shaky deep breath as I ended my first phone call.
I have now fielded hundreds of phone calls like that one — although my calls are shorter now, as I know and have memorized all the appropriate resources. My work with the NAMI HelpLine has changed my life; thanks to my work with help-seekers, I greatly improved my “helping skills,” and made the choice to find recovery of my own.
Learning How to Listen
One of the foundational principles of being a Helpline Specialist is to be a trusted friend. Often, individuals call just to have someone to talk to; many do not have someone else they can rely on for support and a sympathetic ear. Although emotional support is not the primary specialization of the NAMI HelpLine (as we focus on connecting people to the specific resources they need) saying “I’m all ears” and really hearing the caller can often be the difference between hope and hopelessness.
Perhaps the most important skill I gained from volunteering for the helpline was learning and practicing how to listen. In my junior year of college, I took a class where we simulated speaking to patients, and I learned about restatements, reflections, closed questions and open probes. I thought that these skills would help me pass the class and talk to close friends in a more productive conversation than I had before; but I never imagined needing these skills in any other capacity. However, this class coincided with my decision to intern on the NAMI HelpLine.
I found myself relying on and reinforcing these skills: restating what the help-seeker told me, making sounds to let them know I was present on the other side of the line, actively listening, and asking clarifying questions. These skills encourage the caller to open up, and then I can better help them.
Ultimately, we want to help callers and make sure they leave the conversation with renewed interest, insight and aspiration. I can’t fully describe the feeling I get when I find myself in a “thank you” loop with a help-seeker; it is a powerful reminder that I made a difference or gave someone just an ounce of hope to continue.
Becoming a Better Helper
There were several other skills I had to learn in my work with the HelpLine, including: being empathetic, diffusing high-emotion situations and establishing boundaries when necessary. These skills can be more difficult to implement. Typically, you feel an intense desire to help, but you can find yourself lost for words, stuttering while you attempt to find something that would make the help-seeker comfortable. However, with time and practice (and some helpful documents), I found myself closing those awkward gaps completely.
I learned about conditions that affect many of our callers, like anosognosia. I also found more empathetic ways to speak: For example, I now say, “living with a mental illness” rather than “mentally ill,” and I’ll use the term “survivor” instead of “victim.” These changes are small, yet bring autonomy back to the individual, empowering them and reminding them that they are more than just their current condition. I also began to understand my personal limitations and became mindful of my own mental health struggles.
Addressing My Own Experience
There were times when I was petrified and tongue-tied on calls. As a new HelpLine specialist, I would panic and even dissociate whenever a caller mentioned schizoaffective disorder, domestic violence or psychosis. My father lived with schizoaffective disorder, so hearing stories that felt all too similar caused me to relive those traumatic experiences.
I used to wonder, would he be alive today had I called the HelpLine and gotten help? These thoughts were distressing, and I would mull about it for hours. It was something I had never considered before; I thought there was no one out there to help me and that there was no helping him. I felt alone, yet something at the back of my mind was itching that there was more, there was something out there I could learn.
As I took more calls and sat with my own complicated emotions, I started to better understand my experience with mental illness. I finally found the courage to reach out for help and received a diagnosis of PTSD and OCD. Throughout this journey, I found out more about my local NAMI and learned about being a mental health advocate, not just for others, but for myself as well.
Ultimately, working on the NAMI HelpLine has taught me so much about mental health and the importance of speaking candidly. No two callers are the same: There is the man who is finally seeking help after decades of an undiagnosed disorder and the college student stressed from midterms; both serve as a reminder that we all need assistance, and it is always ok to reach out. If there is one lesson I have learned throughout my work with the HelpLine, it is this: there is a resource for everyone, and there is an avenue of hope out there. Never lose hope, we are here for you.
Maria Ahmed is a mental health advocate and current HelpLine Specialist with the NAMI Helpline. She is currently working towards her bachelor’s degree in Behavioral and Community Health at the University of Maryland, College Park. Maria is passionate about public health policy and aspires to promote health and well-being in marginalized communities through fieldwork and legislation.