September 11, 2015

By Brendan McLean

There are many numbers that people mention when they talk about suicide. 10. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. 13. The number of minutes that pass before another person loses his or her life to suicide. 22. The number of veterans who die by suicide every day. 34,000. The number of people who die by suicide each year.

There is also the number 1-800-273-8255. It is the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. It’s a number that you can call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It’s a number that you can call when you feel like you don’t have anywhere to turn.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a network of 166 crisis centers in 49 states that connects individuals to crisis services in their local areas. Last year, the network answered 1.3 million calls. I sat down and spoke with two former suicide hotline volunteers, Kate and Christina, to see what it was like responding to calls.

Brendan: Why did you first get involved in volunteering at a crisis line?

Christina: I first got involved in volunteering at a crisis line because I wanted to be a support to those who needed someone to talk to. I have struggled with depression and anxiety my entire life, and it is encouraging to know that there is a resource out there whose purpose is to help someone in their darkest moments.

Kate: I decided that it would be a good way to help out while also gaining some experience in the mental health field. I was excited to be there for someone who may not have anyone.

Brendan: Tell me about the training process. What was it like?

Kate: Training involved three months of classes that meet twice a week. The most helpful part of training was the countless role- plays in every class. We would act out calls in front of small groups and then debrief. When you’re taking crisis calls, you’re not just passively listening to the caller’s problems. It’s all about active listening. You learn to reflect feelings, summarize issues, ask open-ended questions and use “I” statements to convey concern. For example, “You’re feeling really hopeless and alone right now. I’m concerned for your safety. How would you feel if I sent you some help?”

Brendan: What did you enjoy most about coming in to your shift each time?

Christina: The variety of calls that we received and establishing rapport with the callers. As a listener, I had a very short window to establish rapport with the caller, and because the nature of these calls is so sensitive, quickly establishing trust is vital to the success of the call.

Brendan: What did you enjoy the least?

Christina: I understand the nature of the crisis hotline, and that is to provide immediate support to de-escalate the caller so that he or she can help themselves, but not always knowing what happened to the caller after hanging up was difficult.

Kate: The hardest part is not always having that follow-up conversation. Sometimes callers would agree to a follow-up call the next day so that we could check in and see how they were feeling. Most of the time, however, we would never know the full story.

Brendan: Working at a crisis hotline sounds like it might be pretty stressful. How did you handle the tense situations?

Christina: Once I built up my confidence that I could actually do this, my overall stress levels subsided, and I felt it somewhat comforting to know that I could be there for someone when they may feel like they have nowhere else to turn. I think it’s easy for all of us to put self-care on the back burner, but especially as a “caregiver,”  it’s extremely important to find the time and compassion to do whatever needs to be done to feel good and keep the body and mind calm.

Kate: You learn to leave your calls at the door. If you go home and re-play conversations over and over in your head, you’re going to get burned out. After you take calls for a while, you kind of learn to detach yourself and not get too emotionally invested. You do everything you can for that caller, and you have to trust that you’ve given them help to the best of your ability.

Brendan: Are there any calls that you still remember?

Christina: There are definitely some calls and incidences that I will never forget, mainly those involving physical abuse, children, depression and suicide. I spent over 300 hours on the crisis hotline and talked with hundreds of callers. Working on the hotline definitely changed me. It made me realize how human we all are, with so many of us struggling with similar issues and illnesses, and that we do not have to be alone in our journeys.

Kate: A call that I remember was from a young man in the middle of nowhere Virginia. He was walking along the road and telling me about how he was thinking about suicide and mentioned that there were a lot of bridges around. After it became clear that suicide was an imminent threat, I told him that I was worried about him and wanted to send him some help. He agreed. I stayed on the line while my shift partner scrambled to look up the name of the obscure bridge he was standing on. My shift partner got on the phone with the police in his town and tried to describe to the operator what the caller looked like and where he could possibly be. It took about an hour, but we were able to direct the police to his exact location and get him the help that he needed.

Brendan: What kept you coming back each week to volunteer?

Christina: When someone is in crisis, most times they just need to feel like they are being heard. I feel that life is hard, and it is important that people have an outlet and to know that someone is there to listen to them during any hour of the day, with compassion and free of judgment. Also, I was fortunate to work with some really great people. We supported the callers, but we also supported one another.

Kate: Most of us have been affected by mental health or suicide in one way or another, whether personally or in connection with a family member or friend. Either way, we feel a connection to these callers. What kept me coming back every week was the hope that I would be able to make some small difference in these people’s lives. Suicide is a scary thing to talk about, but being able to talk to someone anonymously and without judgment can make all the difference.

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