Back when we changed the format for submitting questions, I strongly encouraged people who were currently experiencing a crisis to call a hotline or helpline and talk to a friendly person rather than wait for me to sort through the bulging email box and get to their question. The questioners who wanted help composing their suicide notes, the questioners who had possibly just been sexually assaulted and wanted me to tell them if they really had been, the questioners who were literally holding ice packs to their faces in the aftermath of partner violence were definitely 100% Above My Pay Grade. It was unhelpful and dangerous for them to wait; it was overwhelming for me to try to run a crisis hotline out of my email.
The excellent PFC Marie pointed out that the prospect of calling a hotline was daunting and wouldn’t have necessarily occurred to her when she was in crisis mode, and suggested that we find someone who had worked on one to demystify the process. Thankfully, one of our community members stepped forward. Their experience is obviously not universal to every kind of hotline/helpline, but hopefully it will help people feel less nervous about picking up the phone. Hopefully other volunteers will weigh in and give a diversity of experiences and what to expect. The poster has asked to remain anonymous for this post, which is kind of the point of hotlines when you think about it.
I currently volunteer with a helpline that focuses on survivors of sexual abuse. I have previously volunteered at a more general purpose helpline. I can only speak from my experiences, which are only from the volunteer side of the phone, and only within the UK (thus the ‘helpline’ terminology!). Perhaps if the Captain is willing, this post can provide an opportunity for more perspectives from volunteers and callers in the comments.
OK, so to start with, for the most part helplines understand that calling them can be pretty daunting, and so often make a lot of effort to have information up on the web explaining their policies for handling calls (such as confidentiality, anonymity, not judging callers and so on, as well as other more practical details like freephone numbers and how long you can call for). If you’re considering calling or recommending a service and have the luxury of time to investigate, looking through their site is usually a decent first port of call. It also gives you a chance to look for something specific to your needs and preferences, such as an explicitly feminist organisation, or a local one, or one that specialises in suicide/bereavement/workplace issues/LGBT stuff/etc.
But you wanted the inside scoop, so… let’s go
On the practical side first: phones are almost always staffed by <em>volunteers</em>. The level of training provided can vary from a couple of short training sessions up to a quite intensive and thorough course, but you don’t end up a qualified therapist or anything remotely like it. Volunteer turnover tends to be pretty high, as this kind of volunteering is both emotionally demanding and time consuming. So your experiences could potentially vary a lot between organisations, and even within them.
Most organisations offer some combination of listening and information, by phone, email, IM and/or face to face. Some may offer additional services such as support groups, accompaniments to police stations or hospitals, safe housing, and other wondrous things, but I have no personal experience with those (and I imagine they vary immensely from place to place), so I’ll leave them aside in this post and concentrate on the ‘listening and information’ side.
‘Information’ will usually be a case of giving you the details of other services you’ve said you want – for example low cost counselling, housing, sexual health care, other phone lines, etc. Depending on the training and policies of the place you’ve rung, the volunteer may also be able to talk you through things like exactly what’s involved getting a medical check up, reporting to the police, and other options that you may be considering and want to know more about.
Note: I can’t emphasise enough that policies really do vary. Some places are set up solely to provide specialist information (e.g. legal advice lines), while others <em>only</em> provide listening and won’t do the kind of thing I’ve described above. OK, onwards.
‘Listening’ means that we let you, the caller, direct the conversation to wherever you want to go – we don’t intrude with our own agendas, terminology, and interpretations. (If you seem unsure about how to start, we might ask ‘would it help if I asked you some questions?’. We won’t just go barging in). We’ll take what you say seriously, and not minimise it. We also won’t flinch or be shocked at anything you say, and we won’t leave you to deal with our second-hand distress. And unlike the Captain and crew here, we won’t weigh in with our advice and opinions. We <em>will</em> believe you, empathise, affirm that any Not Okay things you describe are indeed Not Okay, and support you.
‘Listening’ covers a lot of ground. It could be as simple as wanting to tell your story aloud and be heard and understood, whether for the first time or the hundredth. You could want to talk through some courses of action you’re considering. You could want reassurance that you’re not imagining things, going crazy, overreacting. You could want to problem solve, or be talked down from something, or simply kept occupied and distracted for a while, or just to not be alone while you cry.
You could not have a clue what you want exactly, and that’s fine too. We’ll work it out together.
In the end, it comes down to two people having a conversation, within a little bubble of safety constructed out of privacy and anonymity and the super clear boundaries that automatically come with the context. And that can be incredibly valuable – if I didn’t think that, I wouldn’t do it. But at the same time, we own no magic wands unavailable to mere mortals. In fact, in many ways we’re more limited in our ability to directly help than a good friend on Team You. We do our best to provide you with as much helpful information and support and encouragement as we can, and then we hope that that puts you, as the expert on your own life, in a good position to make whatever choices are best for you.
That doesn’t always feel like enough. We often wish we could do more, on all counts. Why can’t we give you sandwiches! Or somewhere to stay! Or <em>something</em>! But while our status as sympathetic but anonymous strangers to each other is limiting in some ways, it’s freeing in others. It allows us to just be there and listen in a way that someone who has direct involvement in a situation rarely can, and you can feel free to talk to us without worrying about the effects it will have on your life. It’s a unique dynamic, which can’t replace (or be replaced by) other important things in life, like friendships or therapy.
So that’s the theoretical side of it. Now I want to get a little bit more personal.
If you’re hesitating to call, then most of all I want you to know that we truly do want you to.
From the volunteer’s perspective, we’re sitting in that chair because we want the phone to ring. There are natural fluctuations in the number of calls you happen to receive on any given day, and that’s fine – some days are just going to be busier than others. But for the record, there are few experiences as utterly deflating here as clearing a space in your calendar to come in, dutifully prepping your aftercare in advance… and then having the phone be dead the whole time you’re there. You sit there staring at the phone, alternating trying to will it to ring with THE POWER OF YOUR MIND with trying to trick it into ringing by pointedly ignoring it. (And then comes the inevitable dance of: Wait, what’s wrong with me that I want someone to call me about something horrible? What am I, some kind of emotional vampire? I mean, perhaps no one calling because no one’s in distress! Oh wait, not that thing, the other thing. Fidget fidget). Busy shifts are the times you feel like you’ve actually done some good in the world, not to mention put your own personal time and activist energy to good use.
If you’re a ‘my situation can’t possibly be bad enough to merit a call to a HOTLINE, that’s only for REALLY SERIOUS EMERGENCY situations which is definitely not what I have’ kind of a creature, I want to reach out to you and say… no. That’s seriously not how it works. There is no Minimum Trauma Height for this ride. I have never in my entire time on the phones begrudged a call for not meeting the required awfulness quotient. I very strongly believe that everyone deserves to be able to have a conversation about something that’s bothering them, and to be able do so safely, on their terms, and without repercussions. Regardless of what your situation is and whether you consider it to be That Bad or not.
We’re not helpful to every person in every situation, but if we are, that’s more than enough for me to be truly glad that we’re speaking.