Guest Post! What to expect when you call a helpline/hotline.

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 &lt;em&gt;something&lt;/em&gt;! 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.

90 thoughts on “Guest Post! What to expect when you call a helpline/hotline.

  1. A post has never been timelier. I’ve spent this afternoon at work trawling the web for an appropriate helpline to call. (One for survivors of abuse who are no longer in danger, but are having a hard time. I’ve found, which is a counselling service.) Simultaneously I’ve been feeling sorry for Past Me, who didn’t call the 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline when she could have really used it.

    1. I work for a west London IDVA service and we’ve had good feedback from the counselling service at Women’s Trust if that’s helpful? Good luck with it!

  2. Just seconding what the poster said about no Minimum Trauma Height – I loved when people called in with really minor issues, or even just for a chat about nothing. We had one regular caller who just wanted someone who would talk about shopping for nice clothes without judging their body. You don’t have to be suicidal at all. And I’d far rather have a few of those conversations in between the really tough ones than just be sitting there doing nothing in between the tough ones.

    1. Yes, I used to volunteer on a help line and sometimes people would call us just because they were lonely and wanted someone to talk to–and that was fine too.

    2. A-yup.

      It’s only after taking on counselling cases myself that I really got this. I used to skip therapy sessions where I “didn’t have anything (read: anything bad) to talk about.” How I get this, and go into my therapist and ramble about the paper I’m having trouble writing or the grazing patterns of sheep, and when I apologize for rambling she’s like, “No, the sheep bit was interesting!” I’m discovering that part of what’s behind my depression is that I feel really tentative and unsure about committing to things going well, so being able to burble confidently about things I like is actually really therapeutic.

      But it’s really hard, especially when you’ve got a jerkbrain, to think, “Someone wants to listen to me talk about this crap.” Especially if people in your life have told you to shut up, quit whining, shut your gob, and go away. If someone who’s supposed to help you tells you that, it’d be devastating! But that isn’t factoring in that this is what helplines are specifically for.

      1. The first appointment I had with my psychiatrist right after my anti-depressents kicked in she asked me how I was doing and I said “I feel *good*!” and the poor woman almost burst into tears. It turned out she had had a really rough week with patients who were having a lot of difficulty and she was feeling really down about it. So I got to be the depressed patient who cheered her up. 🙂

        (She was an awesome shrink. I hugged her goodbye when the clinical study ended.)

        1. I had a lot of worry that I was not depressed enough for a therapist, who saw a lot of truly needy and in-crisis clients through the low-cost center where I went, and she said “You are plenty of depressed, but also, you work hard at getting better and that makes me feel good after a day of talking to people in truly rough circumstances. Never apologize for needing what you need.” Plus I bet my problems are pretty entertainingly told. 🙂

    3. I once had a forty minute conversation with someone who was sick of being a stay at home parent and was just super thrilled to be talking to an adult. The line I worked on was nominally to deal with practical things (which this person did have something to sort, just normally it would have been a five minute conversation) but we got a lot of more emotional things as well. That call still makes me smile a bit thinking of it because they weren’t in major distress, they just kept going off on tangents and then apologising.

  3. This rings very true from what I know of women’s crisis. There is no bar to meet in terms of trauma.

    On one of the gentle parenting boards that I read, on a discussion about how to avoid yelling at ones’s kids, it was mentioned that the child abuse hotline folks don’t mind if you call them just to talk when you feel overwhelmed with anger/frustration so that you can avoid yelling at your kids. I’d never thought of hotlines as preventative medicine, but found it very comforting to know.

  4. What a fabulous post… I hope that this reaches a lot of people who need to hear it. I know that until a year or so ago it would never have occurred to me to call any sort of crisis hotline – like a lot of people, I think I’ve definitely been guilty of thinking that my situation wasn’t “bad enough”. However, it would have been so helpful at some points to have a sympathetic, anonymous source of support. I want to get better about sharing information about hotline resources so that it becomes the norm in our society to feel that there is ALWAYS someone you can talk to when things are bad. Maybe that would help reduce some world suck.

  5. It really helps just having someone who’s listening to you and acknowledging your feelings. When you’re doubting your right to say no, that makes all the difference.

  6. Just another perspective: I volunteered for a crisis hotline for five years, and everything this poster says about how we feel about you the caller and what kind of listening we try to provide is spot-on to my own experience. The crisis line I volunteered for had, I think, a slightly more goal-oriented approach, where the goal was to find a plan for the caller for THAT NIGHT, and maybe a plan for a little bit of tomorrow. The plan might include “Call this number tomorrow morning, they can help you,” but it almost always included things in the category of “You’ve said that walking your dog around the neighborhood has helped clear your mind when you’ve felt sad/angry/overwhelmed in the past. When we get off the phone, do you think that’s something you could do? Take your dog for a walk and just clear your head a little?” Or if they hadn’t eaten in a while, get something to eat; or if they felt isolated, to call their loving siblings, or whatever.

    Basically, crisis lines can’t fix your long-term problems (although they’ll give you resources that can), but they’re great at listening to all your feelings in a non-judgmental way and helping you sort out some ideas for self-care.

  7. I volunteered for a year on a crisis line in the US (in the midwest to be more specific). One thing I never understood about the national suicide hotline (in the US) before then is that there is no one giant call center for it (there is probably an office though). When you call it, it transfers you to the nearest available call center. That means each center can only receive one call at a time. So if you’re waiting forever on the line with that really weird music that means your call is bouncing around trying to find a certified center that is available. There are tons of local crisis lines/hotlines/helplines and about 140 maybe in the US are certified to respond to the suicide line which means they get extra training and whatnot. But it might reach a Veterans helpline, a general one, a specific one. Whoever has the training required and is available. All helplines will listen to you, and if they think you need more experienced help, they’ll give you a number. And there are toll free options always.

    I had a friend who worked on a LGBT hotline and as a rule only LGBT people could volunteer. I think some of the Veteran helplines are run by Vets. And they have all Spanish speaking helplines. And I’ve heard of one run only by people with diagnosed mental illnesses (on treatment and maybe supervised). There are a lot of options if you have time to research.

    As a volunteer in the US, I agree with everything the guest poster said. It’s pretty similar here. And any level of situation is appropriate to call. We got everything. And we never once were miffed or said anything mean about a caller and their situation. And we had chronic callers, people who might call up to twenty times a day. To talk about everything, TV, weather, politics, religion, their neighbors.

    It can be a really useful tool. Our specific center had a two week training course, listening hours, monitored first call–all to make sure we were ready. (It went downhill later under new management. So as the poster said, there is every range of preparedness and policies). We were trained on what to say to a rape/sexual assault victim. And to tell them exactly what would happen in the hospital. And main things to make sure they understood (1: I believe you. 2: It’s not your fault. 3: There’s help. Here’s information I have on counseling, legal advice, hospital info, free rape crisis programs, etc.) We can contact local mobile crisis units, the local police, an ambulance, etc. All with the person’s permission (except for a few legal and rare exceptions for emergencies). So, these helplines are good for actual crises, too.

    Always call if you need to! At worst, you might wait on hold if they are busy (and you can always call back later if you don’t want to wait!) Our center often had one person during the busiest hours and it was basically a hold juggling. We were not allowed to not answer a call. I think most other centers have more people. And some are paid workers I’ve heard. We were a small college town and almost all the volunteers were students.

    I know I never had the guts to call a crisis line when I needed it in high school and I could not picture at all what they were like. I was way too nervous and hated phones. There are non-phone options now (not for the national suicide line yet as far as I know). I really wish I called then. I think knowing what it will be like helps a lot. They are used to nervous callers, curious callers, first time callers, etc. They will do what they can to help you and if one place seems rude or unhelpful, try another. You don’t have to stay on the line or call back a crisis center that’s not helpful.

    1. What are the non-phone options, if you don’t mind my asking? Particularly with younger people (and me, when I was that age), I know a lot of them would be much more comfortable typing than talking. Plus if their houses are anything like mine was growing up, it’s a lot easier to get away with “computer noises which might conceivably be homework” than having to speak aloud to someone on the telephone.

        1. Yes, you can also send a text message to 07725 90 90 90 (UK only, I’m afraid that I can’t say much about non-UK resources). Not all branches have this facility, so I don’t know how timely responses can be, but in my local branch, our rule is to reply to any incoming text within 30 minutes. We do get a lot of young people contacting us that way.

          1. Sorry, in case it isn’t clear, I’m talking about the Samaritans here. We’re also known as the Befrienders in some countries.

            While we are known primarily as a suicide helpline, our aim is to offer support to anyone in distress. I have listened to people who have been dealing with rape, abuse, violence, illness and isolation, so please don’t feel that you can’t speak to us if you’re not suicidal.

      1. is available in the US for limited periods of time. It works similarly to a crisis hotline, just with IM instead of the phone.

  8. I am most blessed in not ever having felt the need to call a helpline/hotline, but I feel good knowing they are out there if ever I do need them. I just want to thank the poster and any other volunteers reading out there from the bottom of my heart for donating your time, your compassion, your training (great or small), and your ears to so many people in such dire need. THANK YOU for all you do. And for this post! This was very illuminating.

  9. I don’t want to bum anyone out who is thinking about calling a hotline, but my experience with calling a mental health hotline which did have a therapist was that there was a Minimum Trauma Height for that ride. I was going through a really bad period with severe depression, crying constantly, unable to get out of bed, going to the walk in hours at the clinic when I could get out of bed. It was a weekend, the clinic was not open, I was a wreck. So I called. Their process was you talk to an intake person, they determine how bad you are, and then the therapist calls you back. The therapist called me back, determined that I really wasn’t going to kill myself, and said she had to deal with more serious cases and she would call me back when she had a chance. I mean, this is fair, and everything. I understand and agree. When there is only one therapist, suicidal patients come first. Ok, time passes, I drag myself out of bed, put some clothes on, gird my loins to go out and go where I had to be. Therapist calls me back. I tell her I made some progress, and she said, “Oh, you are ok now, then.” I said something along the lines of “Getting dressed doesn’t really constitute ‘ok'”. But she ended the conversation, and I was still basically a mess. A dressed mess in a chair, but still a mess. I really do believe that she made the right decision the first time she had to put me off. I was stunned and felt abandoned the 2nd time. In fact, this was like 3 years ago, and retelling it is bringing those feelings back. That is how stunning it was.

    I don’t really know what the take away is here. There is no Minimum Trauma Height for needing help, or a friendly ear. It’s really tough to finally get up the courage to call and hear that they aren’t available for you. Maybe the take away is that if this does happen, it’s not you. It’s them. You do deserve help even if that particular resource was not able to provide it.

    1. I’m so sorry that happened to you. I hope you found whatever support you needed and are in a better place!

    2. I think that’s a good takeaway, goldenpeanut, and I’m sorry that happened, it must have really sucked. I’ve had troubles with depression at various times in my life, and I have had some good experiences with the care that was available to me and some bad ones. With some distance from the situations I think the bad ones were about the institutional culture of the places where I was seeking care, and definitely not about me.

      1. To make the comparison to your situation explicit it sounds like this Therapist reeeeaaallly needed some backup. And that is definitely not about you!

  10. I’ve gone through volunteer training at a rape crisis center and a lot of what was said here rings true for me. I went through a pretty long training process – I had to rearrange my work schedule for a 63 hour/two month training class. I appreciated having such a solid background, though!
    The training focused on three broad categories: a “feminism 101” style discussion of sexual violence and rape *and* helping various communities (male survivors, people with disabilities, trans folks), training in the active listening crisis response model (which sounds a lot like the listening described above – not judging or solving problems, but giving callers as much information and support as they need to make decisions for themselves), and learning about the local resources we could provide or guide users to. The center did have some therapy and support groups available, and we learned about dealing with police, hospitals, lawyers, the local university, etc. in case users needed to know how those local systems worked.

    Another really useful thing we did was have roleplays near the end of our training where experienced volunteers would come in and pretend to be various people on the phone, so we could practice handling a lot of situations. I felt pretty ridiculous the first time I did it but it was really helpful in understanding how to approach the idea of people calling me with really intense problems.

    On that note, I think it’s important to say that we didn’t only expect and train for people to call us in an immediate crisis, like the moment their rapist left and they could get to the phone. We definitely did prepare for that, but also for adults calling to process abuse from their childhood or early teen years, people having flashbacks to earlier incidents or just now realizing that a past experience had been sexual assault, and even for worried friends/family members of survivors who wanted to know how to best support their loved ones. Just like there’s no minimum bar of suffering you have to meet in order to call a crisis line, there’s not one flavor of crisis that’s acceptable. If you were raped years ago but still need to process some of that, you can absolutely call a rape crisis line.

    Oh, one last note – the way our hotline worked was that usually during the day calls were routed to someone at the center’s office, but if that person was already on the line or on weekends/evenings, calls went to a call service that would get someone’s name and phone number and page the on-call volunteer, who’d call the user back within 5-10 minutes. So it’s possible that you may call and have to leave info for a call back. Of course you can give any name you want if that makes you feel better.

  11. (I wasn’t paying close enough attention to what I was doing, and posted this in the introvert thread– so sorry!)

    I’ve worked at a domestic violence shelter since 2000. One of our services is a 24 hour hotline; we handle mostly DV survivors seeking shelter or services, but we also get callers who are suicidal, working through psych / mood / life issues, etc. * (Willing to try & answer questions if anyone has them.)

    Something else to keep in mind before you don’t-call: many hotlines are funded by grants and have to demonstrate that there’s a need for the service. If you can’t demonstrate a need (usually by keeping ANONYMOUS records (3-1-2013 – received 74 calls, 23 from males, 33 from X, 48 from Y, etc– names / identifying information don’t go into those kinds of records), funding can get cut.

    So by calling a hotline when YOU need one, you’re keeping them open for future callers. By getting help for yourself, you’re also helping other people.

    * We also-also get prank calls, calls from abusers, and calls from guys calling to jerk off.

    1. Every word of this comment is spot on! I considered making some of those points and then cut them out for length so I’m so so glad you brought them up.

      ‘So by calling a hotline when YOU need one, you’re keeping them open for future callers’ is a perfect way to put it. A busy line is a healthier one on every possible level. Getting lots of calls helps immensely with getting funding, it keeps the volunteers engaged and motivated, and also the more experienced your volunteers are with well meaning, genuine callers (regardless of the severity of their situation) the more the abusers and phone masturbators stand out as unusual, which makes them easier to deal with. And it’s the abusive callers that are often the biggest strain on a service and on volunteer retention, especially of female volunteers (who receive a lot more sexually abusive calls than men).

      Also on a personal note I find it much easier to go home from a night of having spoken to several people in different circumstances than if I’ve just had one conversation. I don’t know why exactly, but the former feels more like ‘I am a skilled person offering an important service in this organisational context’ and the latter ends up with me thinking about that one person for days.

    2. What’s up with the abuser calls, are they looking for help or yelling at you for existing, or what?

      1. Sadly, I’ve never had anyone who was abusive actually call thinking they had a problem; they generally call to ask for legal advice on how to sue / take action against their victims.

        But yeah, it’s that or demanding to know if their partner / child is at our shelter, or threatening us in some way (We’ve already had our first arson threat of the year, and I’m pretty sure we’ve had multiple “tell me if s/he’s there or I’ll send the cops after you and sue you!” calls.).

        Not surprisingly, refusing to respond to their threats in the way they want & expect makes them FURIOUS, and since I can be bit of a jerk, I find that mildly amusing.

        1. Would an abuser who was seeking help ever be welcome to call a DV hotline? A few years ago I (woman) was terrified and sad about what I was doing to my husband. I was scared to call and ask if I were really abusive and what I should do, though, because I didn’t know if they would call the police on me.

          All of the websites I could find about DV were focused on the victim, of any gender, and I had trouble finding any online resources for people who thought they were being abusive and wanted to get better. Since I couldn’t figure out if asking for help would land me in a police station, I never did call. But it would have been wonderful to talk to someone, if that were safe.

          (After a few months I told my psychiatrist who put me on antidepressants and we took communication classes.)

          1. Absolutely! Most DV programs have resources for both victims and abusers, although the resources can be different depending on location.

            (As far as I know, there’s no way to call the cops on a hotline caller. If there was, there wouldn’t be so many threatening calls made to them. I have sent emergency services at a caller’s request, though.)

        2. Thank you for the fast reply, Nell. That is a relief to hear. Thinking about it and your experiences, I suppose services for potential abusers are not advertised much because it might bring on heavy trolling from abusers who have no interest in learning to stop what they’re doing.

          1. Very welcome. 🙂

            There’re a couple of problems with offering services. Getting funding for victims can be hard– funding for abusers can be even harder.

            But the big issue is that a lot of abusers don’t think they’re abusive, so they refuse to seek help. (It’s even more complicated if they’ve been victimized in the past.)

            Others get treatment when it’s court-ordered, and unfortunately, that often doesn’t stick.

        3. Wow. What a crappy set of things to deal with. I know what you mean about finding it amusing though… it is a beautiful thing to watch people who think they have all the power and can abuse others with impunity find out otherwise and flip their shit.

          Hey thanks for answering our questions about your hotline!

          1. Very pleased to be of service. And you’re exactly right– they’re used to getting apologies and compliance (because the person they’re abusing is terrified / believes they deserve it). That’s why they don’t tend to go off on employers and/or people in positions of power. So when we shut them down, it tends to go a bit like this:

            CALLER: *makes threats, uses abusive language, etc*

            NELL: Sir / ma’am, if you continue to use that kind of language, I’m going to have to end the call.

            CALLER: Fuck you, cunt, I’ll say what I want!

            NELL: *hangs up*

            CALLER: *calls back* DON’T YOU FUCKING–

            NELL: *hangs up*

            CALLER: *calls back* WHO DO–

            NELL: *hangs up*

            CALLER: *calls back* *silence*

            NELL: [SHELTER NAME] Crisis Hotline–

            CALLER: YOU FUCKING–

            NELL: *hangs up*

            CALLER: *calls back* LISTEN TO ME YOU–

            NELL: *hangs up*

            They usually give up around the 5th or 6th call, but I had one guy keep calling for most of my (10 hour) shift; and one woman called off and on for three whole days. You just wait ’em out.

      2. Resources for abusers who recognise their behaviour is harmful and want to stop definitely exist in my area, and we have the details available for callers who are interested. So yes, try us!

        I’ve never experienced it myself, but people phoning in order to shout and threaten because you’re providing services to rape victims / LGBT people / probably other groups that I’m not aware of can happen. I understand that used to be a big problem for the organisation I’m with back in the eighties, which makes us still a bit paranoid about revealing the exact location of our office to people and stuff like that. But I don’t think it’s as big a deal now.

        Sexually abusive calls are also a problem for some services. Unfortunately, the people who phone in order to masturbate are usually very practiced at it and realise that just going fapfapfap *heavy breathing* is going to get them hung up on instantly. So they often start out sounding like a genuine caller, saying that they’re depressed and unhappy, that they have something they want to talk about that’s just really difficult, etc etc, and only when the volunteer is invested in the call they start to gradually make it weirder, always trying to tread the line of plausible deniability so that the volunteer doesn’t feel 100% able to hang up on them just in case they are for real.

        That feeling when you realise that what you thought was a theraputic retelling of a traumatic tale of sexual abuse is actually someone’s sexual fantasy and they’re getting off on telling you the supposed ‘details’ (or making you say dirty words to ‘help’ them, or just on making you really uncomfortable) is, well, yeah. People leave over that kind of thing, and rightfully so, because that’s sexual abuse. Ohhh they make me so angry!

        1. Oh, fuck. I wasn’t a volunteer for a helpline, but I once got suckered into this sort of thing. There is something sneakily worse about going trustfully into a situation trying to be kind and helpful, and finding out they were consciously using these tactics to get you, than dealing with the upfront abusers. Thinking back on it is making me feel like shit again.

          It didn’t even occur to me that someone would do that on a helpline. Of course it didn’t occur to me that anyone would do anything like that ANYWHERE. Sorry if this is slightly incoherent, I am guessing I’m a little triggered!

          1. Oh no, I’m so sorry. I should have thought to put in a trigger warning.

            And yes, it is awful. They take advantage of a context in which the volunteer’s default response is to believe and be sympathetic. It’s both frustrating on an intellectual level (they’re taking time away from other callers, and so on) and really upsetting on a personal level.

        2. Yeah, we had one repeat masturbator. We got to recognize him pretty fast, since his voice & his pattern of behavior on each call was identical. It was impossible to not know he was jerking off on the other end, so our procedure was “As soon as you know that’s what he’s doing, provide him with the number to the local mental health care facility and end the call.”

          He used to call between 3-5am, usually on the weekdays (when I work night shift), sometimes on weekends. One shift, though, I was on vacation, and my MALE co-worker pulled shifts that week for me… and guess who called? Yeah.

          He never called again, which genuinely surprises me. People like that are usually a lot more persistent.

        3. So glad I’m not the only one who has had this happen. I once spent over an hour on the phone with a man, triaging away other needy callers, only to realize that the whole thing had been an elaborate ruse to lead me into talking about his sexuality with him while he jerked off. Felt both guilty and violated for weeks afterwards. Working the crisis line is totally worth it, but seriously, fuck these abusive douchewads. Prank callers are irritating, but sexually abusive callers can reach a whole new level of terrible.

          1. YES. This is why they make me so goddamned angry. The time I waste on prank callers is time I can’t give to other callers, or to my in-house clients.

            (At work, as here, we don’t try to diagnose callers. Yes, people who make calls like that may have genuine issues– but that isn’t for us to try and diagnose, and we don’t have to tolerate abusive or exploitive behavior regardless of the reason behind it.)

        4. No no, don’t feel bad for that! Can’t put warnings on everything, and I wouldn’t even have known I’d be affected anyway. Sometimes I’m retroactively grateful in a way, since getting a strong reaction to something really forces me to realize that my experiences did impact me and pretending it was nothing and it’s done with is doing myself a disservice. Anyway! Sorry, rambly and whatnot.

        5. Some hotlines (like the one I volunteer for) have rules about containing caller about details, which makes the ones who ONLY WANT TO TALK ABOUT THE DETAILS stand out, and makes abusive callers easier to identify. (Not necessarily easier to deal with, but easier to identify)

  12. Thank you. THANK you. I know this will help lots of folks. It makes me feel better about the prospect of calling.

    Maybe this isn’t the place to ask, but can anyone recommend a text-based/email-based thingy? Because I desperately needed something this week, I was coming apart at the seams and my guts were all over the floor, emotionally, and my usual people were unavailable, but when I am at my worst (and hence, when I am most likely to heed help) the phone is a terrible, scary no can do thing for me, and is furthermore not private – I don’t want to have to explain to Housemates who I am talking to and why. Also, I don’t always have access to one.

    If things get bad like that again, I’d really like something to turn to, instead of crying for three nights running. If it matters, I’m in the US, and I am bi-polar, trans, gay, kinky (which does relate to my current difficulty) and would need someplace feminist-y/sex-positive that would not judge me for that stuff because I need to talk about it. There is no specific problem, I’m just in a real bad place with life choices and feeling very hopeless about my mental illness and how it’s crippling my social life. I am very alone.

    I’m scared to contact local places or random places because I live in a really bible-thumpy area of the Deep South, and a lot of the outreach and counseling services here are run through or from churches, which makes me SUPER DUPER UBER uncomfortable. I’ve had scary-bad experiences with that. They can be *real* mean.

    Again, sorry if this isn’t the place, I just could really . .. use the hand?

    Youall are wonderful. I read all the comments I can and have learned a lot here. Thank you.

    1. I’m not sure how helpful this is, since I don’t have a specific line to recommend… I had to do several searches before I could find the numbers of places that offer texting, but they are there! So far “text messages suicide hotline” has gotten a number of results… I know the search terms say “suicide hotline,” but in my experience, you don’t have to be suicidal to text, and in fact a lot of people text with various crises and needs. No Minimum Trauma requirements (if you do text a suicide line, they’ll probably ask if you’re feeling suicidal because they have to, but the lines are definitely there for anyone)!

      *jedi hugs*

    2. The Trevor Project has a chat-based helpline. Their official mission is for “youth” (not further defined) and I obviously don’t know how old you are. That said, I doubt they would turn you away from the chat window. If you aren’t youth and don’t feel comfortable obscuring that fact, you could certainly ask them for a similar resource for GLBT adults.

      I have no personal experience with them, so I can’t vouch for how sex-positive and feminist they are.

      Best of luck finding this addition to your support system.

    3. I don’t know how old you are, but if you fall into the vague definition of “young adult” you could check out the Scarleteen message boards for support. Generally we serve people under 25 but there are some slightly older users. Younger folks get priority in terms of response time, though.
      ST is hella trans/queer/kink/mental illness/sex-positive. =)

      1. You’re with Scarleteen? I ❤ Scarleteen soooo hard! Yall are just awesome. Alas, alas, I am far too old to be considered young adult. *rueful laugh* But I love what you do, and just admire the *crap* out of you.

        1. Awww, thanks! I’ve actually only been volunteering since mid-January but I’m really excited to be on the team as I’ve admired Scarleteen from afar for many years. =)

    4. The Samaritans can be contacted by email at

      They are UK-based but answer emails from all over the English-speaking world. They have a system whereby emails get routed to centres so the people answering you can’t see your email address or anything, so it’s totally confidential.

      You can find more info at

      A note: they say they are for people dealing with feelings of distress and despair, including those who are suicidal. But there is no Minimum Trauma Height, as it has been so aptly described.

      They are not explicitly kink-positive, but the (extensive) training talks a lot about accepting differences and being open to anything, and about non-judgemental listening, and they will refuse to accept people who they feel are too judgemental.

      1. I just wanted to add that the Samaritans are in no way religious, and never has been, in case the name suggests otherwise.

    5. IMAlive ( is an online crisis network with a chatline – I believe they primarily or only use chat. One thing to try searching for instead of “issue hotline” is “issue chatline” if you (like me) are phone-phobic or otherwise find it difficult to use the phone in your particular circumstance. There are a lot more out there to find.

  13. I’d also like to add that a hotline run by a religious organisation doesn’t necessarily have a religious bent on the phone. I was trained by Lifeline in Australia which is run by Wesley Mission, a Methodist(??) charity and one of my concerns going in was the counseling would be religious in nature. But really the only mention of it was the one weird facilitator who would lead a prayer before training sessions occasionally. All the training was secular and aimed at serving all members of the community including LGBT people and people who are usually maligned by society/religion (eg. sex workers) without judgement. I have no idea whether this is usual for other hotlines but if anyone reading this is in Australia and had these concerns, at least rest assured that Lifeline doesn’t have a religious axe to grind that I could see.

    1. Also did some Lifeline training (I had to withdraw and hope to reapply next year) and I’d like to clarify that Wesley Mission doesn’t run Lifeline, they are just the training provider in Melbourne. And yep, Lifeline is secular, and all their volunteers have a nationally accredited certificate in crisis counselling.

  14. I used to volunteer with the Samaritans ( This whole post is EXTREMELY long and is specific to the Samaritan organisation, but it might help anyway? If not… Sorry for the enormous rambling text-wall!

    They are a 24/7 confidential service based in the UK. You can contact them by telephone, email, text, letter, or a face-to-face visit. The text number is not publicly displayed because they are rolling it out slowly over many years in an attempt to keep response times reasonably low, but it’s possible to find it by Googling. You don’t have to be in the UK to use their services.

    You don’t have to be suicidal, and there is no Minimum Trauma level.

    If you ARE suicidal, the Samaritans will talk to you about it in a non-judgemental way, which I think is one of their strongest points. The volunteers won’t be thrown by it or try to tiptoe around it, and they won’t try to persuade you out of it – up to and including staying on the phone with you while you do it. If this happens, they will ask whether you want them to send an ambulance. If you say yes, they will first encourage you to do this yourself, but if you can’t, they will ask for your address and send one to you. If you don’t give your address to them, or if you refuse the ambulance altogether, they will still stay on the phone.

    That said, obviously they don’t cheer you on(!) but they do recognise that callers are entitled to make their own decision. Similarly, they don’t offer advice – they will help you to come to your own decisions by listening and talking things through with you until you find your own right solution.

    OK, that’s the info out of the way, now to the specifics.

    When you call, you dial a national number and your call is routed to your nearest volunteer centre. If that one is busy or closed, it gets routed on to the next, and so on. As a result, the people talking to you don’t know your phone number or even what part of the country you are calling from.

    Someone will answer in a quiet way, usually saying something like, “Samaritans. Can I help?”

    If you are overwhelmed by the phone, or if you’re crying and can’t speak, that’s fine. They will sit quietly with you and occasionally talk to you to see whether they can help you to start speaking. They might introduce themselves, tell you to take your time, ask some non-threatening questions, or simply sit in silence for a while. If you really can’t speak, they will eventually put down the phone, but not before reassuring you many times that you can call back whenever. If this happens to you, DON’T feel like you’ve wasted the volunteer’s time or that they are annoyed with you. They are used to it and their main concern will be whether they could have done more to make things easier for you, and a hope that you will try again.

    If you can speak, then the volunteer will sit quietly and wait for you to start. They might prompt you with a very gentle question (Can I help? or How are you feeling?) but they won’t interrogate you. They will ask open questions to get to the bottom of your difficulties, but they are interested in your emotions, not about specifics. They won’t be grilling you on dates, or why you have done something. They’ll ask how you feel about whatever you’re talking about, whether you have a plan for what you think you might do next, etc.

    They might ask for a name, usually phrased something like, “My name’s CODA. Is there something I can call you?” PLEASE don’t worry. They are only asking so that they can more easily chat to you (it’s easier to feel connected when you have a name) and they don’t care at all whether it’s a real name or a made up one.

    At the end of your call, they will make a note of the time you rang, how long you spoke for and a brief outline of the call (REALLY brief. Like, a 2 hour call might be summarised as “Wife died 4 months ago. Struggling to process grief.”) and they will note details like roughly how old you were, whether you were male or female, and the name you gave, if any. These logs are TOTALLY confidential within the organisation. Anonymised data is collected, but the details are there to help the debrief at the end of the shift. The volunteer calls a supervisor and talks through their calls and gets any support they need. If it’s been a long shift, they might need to jog their memory 🙂 it also helps to identify persistent crank callers (usually people who want to masturbate to us… Sigh) so that action can be taken.

    You will almost certainly be asked whether you’re suicidal, because they have to, but they won’t treat you any differently no matter how you answer.

    When you email the Samaritans, your email gets routed through a system so that the people writing back can’t see your email address. It doesn’t matter where you’re emailing from – it doesn’t have to be from the UK.

    The emails will usually be signed “Jo”, but each email will be routed anew each time, so you won’t be talking to the same person each time. However, they can see previous emails, so you don’t need to repeat yourself, and you can treat it like a normal conversation. If an email conversation gets really in-depth, it might be assigned to one centre so that you get more consistency and get responses from the same one or two people who have gotten to know you best.

    They will try not to overwhelm you with a wall of text or too many questions. Sometimes it might feel odd if you’ve written loads and you get back only a couple of paragraphs, but please don’t feel like you’re rambling on or wasting their time. The conversation is about you, and they just want to give you room to talk.

    Emails are answered in order of arrival, and they try to make sure they get answered as soon as possible, but of course there will always be some delay. If your email arrives at a centre and is not opened within a certain time, it gets routed to a different centre, so this could take some time. However, once an email is opened and read, they try to reply to you within about 20 minutes.

    If, after emailing back and forth, you send an email that clearly wraps things up, they might not reply at all. This is because they want to respect your feeling of being “done”, and they don’t want you to feel obligated to reply out of politeness and therefore string out a conversation that you’d rather be moving on from. If they’ve judged it wrongly and you do want to continue the conversation, don’t worry about emailing again and asking for a further response. I THINK your email address is assigned a code so that all previous emails will still be there, it’s not like you’d have to start from scratch.

    SMS is very similar to emails, but they try to keep the response time even shorter.

    Very similar to emails. I’m not sure whether they assign letters to one centre or whether they are routed like emails are. We never had one in the year I was with the Samaritans.

    Your local centre will have times posted on their door for when they accept face-to-face visitors. You will be taken to a small, private room and you can stay as long as you like within the open times. Some places offer drinks and biscuits, some places found that this meant people would come just for that and not for any actual difficulty!

    1. >>You will almost certainly be asked whether you’re suicidal, because they have to, but they won’t treat you any differently no matter how you answer.

      I trained as a Samaritan volunteer in 2001, although I moved away from that town a year later so I only spent about 10 months as a volunteer. We were told in training that we should always ask someone if they felt suicidal, and if they said yes, to follow that up with whether or not they had a plan. We were all super nervous about asking it, particularly on calls where the person sounded relatively calm, and I think I really expected people to get annoyed by the question.

      But I found that it was pretty much always greeted as a huge relief. You’d have someone who was chatting fairly normally, and then you’d ask them if they were feeling suicidal, and very often they’d stop, sigh, pause, and say, “Yes, I suppose I am really.” They were very practised at putting on the No, Everything’s OK face, and being asked that by someone who sounded like they wouldn’t particularly freak out if you said yes was such a blessed relief. Or sometimes people would say in slight surprise, “Actually, no, I’m not suicidal. I am sad and frustrated by it all, but I do think I’ll manage to get through it.” – and that would be really important for them too. It was an incredibly powerful question, and people seemed to really appreciate it.

      I agree with everyone else that there’s no Minimum Trauma Requirement, though – it was good to feel like you’d spent time with people who were really in the dark and just needed someone to be there with them, and it was good to talk to people who felt sadness wasn’t the only or most important thing in their life but that they really needed to talk to someone right now. The only bad calls were abusive/sex calls. Everything else was extremely welcome.

  15. I just wanted to say, as someone who’s called a hotline, I found them great. This was years ago for me (I’m okay now!), but there was a short period where calling hotlines really, really helped me. Yes, when I called late at night on a weekend, I had to wait for a call back, but it wasn’t a long wait, and the person didn’t mind that it was Saturday night and I needed someone.

    I was afraid to call for a long time because I felt like the whole world would come crashing down if I admitted to someone all the crap I was carrying around under my skin. But it didn’t. Calling a hotline was safe, respectful of my feelings and need for anonymity.

    So a shout out of gratitude to all of you who volunteers for hotlines/helplines. You are awesome.

  16. I called a suicide hotline a time or two several years ago. I wasn’t acutely suicidal. But it was really good to talk to someone at that moment. You know, it doesn’t cure you, but maybe it does just get you through another day.

    However, there were even more times when I _tried_ to call someone but all the numbers I tried weren’t working. The phone just rang and rang and rang and rang and no one ever picked up. Or the phones were disconnected or something. And I just gave up and cried myself to sleep. I am still not sure why I couldn’t find anyone at the numbers I called. I was drinking heavily, so perhaps I was just messing it up. But I just wanted to throw that out there and say that sometimes reaching a real live person is non-obvious. I was often doing this at like 4 or 5 AM, though, so maybe that’s it? I still don’t know

    1. You weren’t doing anything wrong, I promise you that.

      My best guess is that, well, all line were constantly occupied– it’s not really that unusual, unfortunately. My shelter has four lines. That’s it– that’s all we can afford to man. If we get 4+ calls at once, which is not unusual… yeah.

      I’m really, really sorry, though, and I’m so glad you’re still with us.

    2. I’m with Nell, I’m sure it wasn’t you. There are a few possible reasons, if you’re still curious.

      Not all services are 24/7 (mine isn’t, for example). It’s possible you were calling outside their opening hours.

      They may not have had enough volunteers there, whether because the volume of calls was beyond their capacity as Nell said, or because someone was ill, absent etc.

      Possibly the lines may not even have been open any more. Sometimes funding can be hard to come by, and services can disappear and reappear as and when they’re able to open. I find that heartbreaking – once your number is out there, it really should stay available. But it can’t always.

      However, in all three of these circumstances, you should at least have reached an answerphone message explaining. That you didn’t makes me really sad. Well, the whole thing does really. I’m so glad you made it through.

  17. Yeah, I’m glad there are some of these places that are willing to listen but the one time I needed to call, I got told in very polite, intelligent, logical, and cold terms that I was blowing everything out of proportion and just needed to see reality and cope with it. This was the national suicide hotline in the US, by the way. I was luckily able to get in touch with one of my friends afterward and they helped me work everything out, but I’m not going to have faith in a hotline again. I’m glad other people have had better experiences, but if I’d only had that hotline to rely on, I wouldn’t be here right now.

  18. I tried calling a hotline in the late 90’s, using a number I’d seen on posters around town for the RAINN hotline. Apparently, the number on the posters wasn’t the hotline number, because the recorded voice on the other end asked me was if I wanted to make a donation to the hotline. The number for the actual hotline was a well kept secret, I guess. So I just hung up and never tried again. Writers above seem to have had positive experiences more recently with them, so that’s good.

    And only tangentially related to hotlines, but recently I started seeing posters about discrimination in the workplace with a website address that said they could help. So I copied the website address and looked it up, but there was nothing more on the website than was on the posters around town. It was just an awareness campaign that discrimination in the workplace is bad. They didn’t have any tools to help or numbers to call or advice beyond “don’t discriminate!”. But they, too, had a way for me to donate money to them or help spread awareness by posting to facebook or whatever. I closed the page and never went back.

  19. I called a suicide hotline after someone disclosed thoughts of hurting themselves to me. I didn’t know at what point I should be calling 911 (USA) or if I should just be trying to connect that person to resources, or what, and the operator on the suicide hotline helped me to understand at what point a crisis becomes an emergency, and gave me some resources that I passed on to the person. I thought it was really helpful.

  20. I spent three years on a university hotline, which is somewhat different. First, while we were completely anonymous we did take a very active role if someone was in crisis. Almost to the point of forcing them off the phone to get qualified help, since there could be legal ramifications if they needed help and didn’t get it. We went through debates of how much to direct rambly callers, including research into what other hotlines did. Sometimes it was about getting the person past “what I’m feeling now” to “what decision can I make”. And sometimes in terms of someone who called over and over but was failing to take any responsibility for the consequences of actions. I mean, we had entire meetings devoted to “how to deal with” that caller because spewing anger clearly wasn’t moving life forward and we worried about enabling.

    I agree that most modern hotlines will have a minimum trauma height, and a sliding scale of when they’ll firmly suggest you can call back tomorrow. The internet is obviously a good place to search for a hotline specific to your needs, though we did try to have resources ourselves. But you’ll also pick up a sense of whether the volunteers/ philosophy are a good fit and you can try a different one next time if not.

  21. Great post- really valuable stuff here. Thanks to all those who have volunteered too.
    I learned a lot!

  22. Hiya! I volunteer for a “women’s” crisis line in the northwest. We focus on sexual assault and domestic violence, but field a lot of calls about houselessness and mental health issues as well. I put “women’s” in quotes because we totally field calls from folks of all gender identities – there has been consideration of changing the name, just don’t have the momentum yet, I think. Our training included sessions on different axes of oppression (gender, sexuality, race, immigration status, etc.), although of course different volunteers have different individual levels of having absorbed that training.

    When folks call, typically we answer by saying “[NAME OF] crisis line” and after that we’re off script. We rely on callers to guide the conversation, since our goal is empowerment, not “saving.” We don’t usually say our names because we do get a lot of obscene callers. Typically we listen when someone either states a need (“I need someplace to go tonight” or “Where can I get a restraining order?”) or lets us know they want to talk about what’s up. If someone states a need, we see if we have an appropriate resource, and if not, we have cheat sheets to consult, a resource binder, and if all else fails, we Google it. We happily give out phone numbers and also provide “warm handoffs” – we three-way call the resource, briefly introduce the person we’re calling on behalf of, and make sure the caller is connected before hanging up. For people who have complex situations, we have dedicated staff advocates who have particular specialties – youth, houselessness, folks with disabilities, sex workers, etc. and a phone volunteer will refer callers as appropriate.

    My best advice for folks calling a similar line: be as clear as you can about your needs, even if your need is “I need to figure out what I need!” A whole bunch of our training was about how to assist callers in figuring that out, and a lot more was about active listening. You’re not wasting our time calling to talk about your feelings, and if we think we have a more appropriate resource for you (a suicide hotline, or a warmline), we will for sure let you know and would be happy to directly and personally connect you. Sometimes it can be challenging for me personally to figure out what someone wants – do they want to talk? do they want referrals and resources? both? neither? and I would totally not be offended if someone said “Hey, I appreciate that you’re trying to validate my feelings and all. I need a number, can you look it up?” Great!

    As a personal appeal: please be as kind as you can. I’m a new volunteer, and sometimes I feel like I am the WORST ADVOCATE IN THE WORLD because I can’t find a resource fast enough, or at all, or someone doesn’t qualify for something even though their situation is totally shitty and possibly dangerous. In the month that I’ve been a full volunteer, I’ve had a lot of people call me names or accuse me of withholding resources for no reason, or get angry when I can’t figure out exactly what they are looking for. Crisis situations are so hard, and the people on both ends of the line are only human.

    Also, before I got trained I had never heard of a “warm line” – it’s like a crisis line, except for folks who are not necessarily in crisis but need someone to talk to. Highly recommended!

    1. Also, before I got trained I had never heard of a “warm line” – it’s like a crisis line, except for folks who are not necessarily in crisis but need someone to talk to.

      That’s really interesting that there’s a specialised service/number for that where you are! I haven’t heard of that before. Was their number advertised, or was it accessed through referrals only?

      In my experience ‘crisis’ services can and do often provide ongoing care for people who just want someone to talk to. So people looking for that shouldn’t be put off by calling a service that has ‘crisis’ in the name 🙂

  23. I volunteered for two hotlines (US/Northwest), with some overlap.

    The first was my college’s sexual assault/domestic violence helpline, and in addition to what one can usually expect of helplines in terms of anonymity, confidentiality, and active listening, they would also provide information on options, services, and referrals. When advocating for a caller they might go with them to the hospital or clinic, to interviews, help with paperwork, accompany them to the courthouse or other court dates, or help them navigate anything else official, such as dealing with campus offices if changes in housing, class schedules, student visas, etc., were needed. For all of those things, of course, we would explain the process. We had frequent meetings after the initial training sessions and outside sources from all of the places we dealt with would come in and explain their processes so we could provide the most accurate information possible. We had rape kit day, and order of protection day, and basic legal information day, and we had complicating factors day, such as other mental illness, long term trauma and abuse, suicidality, and self-harm. When the last source came in, I knew where I wanted to go next, so I checked their website everyday until the new volunteer applications add came up and applied, and then I volunteered for them. Our shifts at the college line were short, and most of us only fielded a maximum of five phone calls during our time there. It was a wonderful service, but I wanted more experience, with a greater variety of issues, especially in helping the suicidal.

    The other hotline was a mixed bag as in, they dealt with a little bit of everything. They did phone calls to the elderly in the mornings, either to say hello, or ask if they’d taken their medications, or just to check in and see if they were okay, and they became the state 211 line while I was there. Primarily they were our states suicide hotline and primary mental health care and crisis line. We had a database of every therapist and psychiatrist (that wasn’t knowingly guilty of some ethical violation) within the closest counties and their specialities, pay scales, and educational background. For a small yearly fee, we were those therapist’s pager/buzzer system, fielding their callers and calling them in when necessary. The licensed therapists that worked gave free therapy to dozens of survivors of sexual assault and abuse every year. They ran thrift shops and fundraisers so that they could rely as little as possible on government funds. We referred people who couldn’t afford gas, food, lodging, or clothes, and those who needed short or long-term crisis treatment. They also went to court with their sexual assault clients. There was, quite literally, no reason that was considered too small to call. I talked to people about misunderstandings they had with friends, or with men about being sad about not having a significant other, or with the depressed because they just couldn’t find the energy to do anything at all that day. I spoke with people who cross dressed, or who were sad because their spouse didn’t hug them that day, or who didn’t know how to come out to a family member. I spoke to schizophrenics and manics and the chronically depressed, to people who were trying not to self-harm and those who wanted to die right now, unless I could convince them to put it off at least until tomorrow because maybe, just maybe, we could find a way to make their situation better, and a plan of action to make it that way. We took walk-ins, and we had devices for speaking to the hearing impaired. Towards the end of my volunteer work there, they were coordinating with law enforcement to educate them on the mentally ill and help them ID people who needed help rather than bars (and refer them).

    The two hotlines had different approaches, in the sense of whether or not they encouraged a caller to seek legal recourse in the case of recent sexual assault (one said court was a painful stressor that could exacerbate trauma especially if the case was lost; another said that callers who won cases gained resolution and healed faster). The suicide hotline actually allowed “check out” calls for quite some time (we only had 1 in the entire history of the hotline) where a caller who was hell bent on the idea of killing themselves could simply make a farewell. Some suicide hotlines will trace you, and they will send someone to check on you. Ours did not. If you’re calling for that, and the idea bothers you, make sure you ask what their policy is first. Also, the first hotline didn’t deal with perpetrators of crime or the shady grey areas. The second did and I was expected to be able to deal with harassers and abusers of all natures non-judgementally (even if I secretly wanted to throttle them-a few I wanted to give a piece of my mind, most weren’t as bad as you might think. The bad ones don’t ask for forgiveness).

    Primarily, the two hotlines were the same in all important respects: they placed a very high priority on the confidentiality, anonymity, and safety of their callers. They stressed that every volunteer must have a firm grasp and knowledge of any biases they might have, and work to not impose them on the caller. The workers loved their clients and wanted to serve them and help them find ways to make their lives better. I never heard any of them laugh at or belittle a client. They were aware of where the boundaries on legality were (I called the child abuse hotline, even to report the smallest iota of information, every single time I had a phone call dealing with child abuse, much to the irritation of the child abuse hotline workers). I had to tell parents or legal guardians if they called and directly asked if their dependents were there, but then we would promptly tell the caller that X knew they were there, and I never had to divulge anything the caller said, or the sources I gave them. I had to report instances of abuse or any serious threats of murder or violence. In fact, unless a person is reporting an illegal action (harm to self (THAT varies) or others), everything is confidential. Side suggestion, if you’re reading this and not sure if something you are doing is a potential violation that will get you flagged, call and ask what their policies on whatever you’re concerned about are, ask what constitutes X. They both kept basic statistics (broken down by demographics, with no identifying information, or more than an X besides the basic format of the call (information, referral, mental illness, domestic violence, third-party, self, etc.). Both had debriefing for calls (where a volunteer processes anything that might have been hard to cope with with a staff member also inside the organization). Some calls were five minutes, some were two hours. We had regulars, and first timers that were usually a bit nervous (that’s okay!). It was a rare day when we blocked someone, and it was usually when they were abusive or harassing after repeated firm boundary setting. We told them it would happen FIRST if X behavior didn’t stop, and then we’d block them for a certain period of time, or only allow them to call during certain time frames. We sometimes gave masturbatory callers the number to a sex addicts hotline once we’d ID’d them.

    We had a volunteer and a staff member at almost all times, but sometimes we would have suicidal callers and have to ask our regulars or others to call us back soon due to an emergency once we’d made sure they weren’t in full out crisis themselves (or offer to call them back if so willing). Don’t be offended or feel rejected if this happens to you! We do want to talk to you, and as soon as possible, but sadly, sometimes someone else has to take priority first.

    Sorry this was so long, but I hope it was somewhat helpful.

  24. Thank you for this. This was also the nudge I needed to seek out my local sexual assault survivor line to start processing my shit. (Been in the “ready to process but no idea how to even start or find resources to start” phase.) And they have an online chat option! It’s not too scary. (Okay, it’s still totally scary. but in a manageable kind of way.) Jedi hugs.

  25. I volunteer for a rape crisis program in an ER in a large hospital. A lot of what I’m about to describe is specific to our hospital, and even more so to our jurisdiction, but hopefully it’ll give some idea of what services are available in hospital-based crisis programs. Many hospitals don’t have these services, so if you need one, I’d suggest googling “rape crisis hospital [your town or city]” to verify that they have an office dedicated to helping survivors. In the ER, we provide counseling, explain the survivor’s options, help navigate hospital bureaucracy, and liaise with police. We are ‘advocates,’ not ‘counselors,’ because our job is to advocate for your needs with hospital staff and police, in addition to counseling. Our social work office can provide aftercare services including therapy, immigration assistance, assistance filing for compensation, and help with the hospital’s bureaucracy, among others.

    If you show up in our ER and report a sexual assault, or possible sexual assault, the social worker calls the rape crisis advocate on call. There will be someone available 24/7/365. This person has had at least 40 hours of training and is certified through the state office of Health and Mental Hygiene, and renews their certification every year. If you are under 13 years of age, the hospital will call a volunteer who has been specifically trained to work with children. If the survivor is under 13, the hospital will alert the parents. If the survivor is over 13, the hospital cannot alert the parents without the survivor’s permission. If you mention domestic violence in addition to the sexual assault, the volunteer will be trained to work with DV issues. (I’m a rape crisis advocate, not a DV advocate. I don’t know much about the DV program.)

    In our jurisdiction, the hospital will not alert the police without your permission. (More on this later.) You do not need health insurance to receive either medical care or counseling services. You do not have to pay for anything on the spot, and if you complete at least one step of the Sexual Assault Evidence Kit (SAE kit), you don’t have to pay for any medical care related to the sexual assault. (More on this later.) If you don’t know whether or not someone assaulted you (for example, if you were unconscious or intoxicated), or if the assault did not include rape, you are still eligible for all our services. Everyone is welcome regardless of sex, gender identity, race, religion, national origin, etc. The ER accepts walk-in patients, patients arriving via ambulance, and patients escorted by police. There is an interpreter phone line in case you don’t speak English fluently.

    The advocate will arrive within roughly 30 minutes of being called, will introduce his/herself, and explain that anything you say to them is confidential, just like a doctor, therapist, spouse or religious leader. The only exceptions are if you say you plan to hurt yourself, you plan to hurt someone else, or someone is hurting a child. They will tell you that what happened to you was not your fault, and coming to the hospital to get health care was a brave decision, and they’re proud of you. They will ask if you want to talk about what happened, but you don’t have to talk to the advocate at all unless you want to. If you say, “I’d like to be alone right now,” they’ll understand and focus on helping you in other ways. They are also available for hugs and handholding if you want, but will not touch you unless you ask them to.

    They will ask if you would like them to call anyone on your behalf and let them know you’re in the hospital. Typically this goes, “Hi, my name is So-and-so, I’m a volunteer at Hospital and I’m calling on behalf of Survivor. S/he can’t come to the phone right now but wanted to let you know that s/he is safe and will be home in a few hours, so you don’t need to worry.” They will not disclose any information about the assault without your permission. They also offer you a change of clothes, a snack, drink, or blanket. If you want to complete the SAE kit and there may be evidence in your mouth, eating or drinking may contaminate the evidence, but your health comes first, so you are free to decide.

    The advocate will explain your options. In our hospital, you can choose a medical exam at any time. If fewer than 96 hours have passed since the assault, you can also choose an SAE kit, and/or a Drug-Facilitated Sexual Assault (DSA) Kit, which involves taking blood and urine samples to be tested for date rape drugs. No one can perform these exams/tests without your consent, and the advocate will be there to prevent anyone from bullying you into consenting. The medical exam is strictly to determine if you have injuries or health problems, and can be done at the same time as the SAE kit. If you want the advocate to stay with you during the exam, they can sit behind a curtain, or with you at the head of the exam table. Either way they will not watch the exam. If you want them to leave the room, they will be happy to do so.

    The SAE exam will be performed by a nurse with additional training related to sexual assault, and can legally be done by any doctor (residents and up) if a specially trained examiner is unavailable. The SAE kit has many steps, and you can do some, none or all of them if you like. In our city, if you complete even one step, the city’s Office of Victim Services will pay for all medical expenses related to the sexual assault. (Other medical expenses are your responsibility; for example, if you mention an unrelated health problem while talking to the doctor and get treatment for it, you will have to pay for those costs.) You do not have to file a police report to get the OVS to pay for your expenses. Many people choose to do a less invasive step, such as fingernail scrapings or hair samples, and skip the photographs and pelvic exam. That’s perfectly fine. Other people opt to do the whole kit because they’re getting a pelvic exam for medical reasons so they might as well do it all at once.

    The hospital does not have a DNA lab and does not process the evidence. The purpose of the SAE and DSA kits is to preserve evidence within 4 days of the assault in case you decide you want to press charges, at which point the police will collect the evidence and process it in their lab in about two weeks. Unfortunately, that means the hospital cannot tell you whether or not there is a date rape drug or someone else’s DNA in your body. Sometimes people have a catch-22 where they don’t know if a crime happened until the evidence is tested, but they can’t get the evidence tested until they report a crime.

    In our jurisdiction, you don’t have to decide on the spot whether or not you want to press charges. Our jurisdiction has no statute of limitations for rape, and the hospital will not call the police unless you ask them to. (Unfortunately, in the USA most states require the hospital to notify the police, just like they would for a gunshot wound or stabbing. If you don’t know what the law requires in your state, pick a hospital with an advocate program if you can.) The hospital will store the SAE and DSA kits in locked storage for up to 90 days and then destroy them. Of course, you can file a police report long past that if you so choose.

    If you want to file a police report at the hospital, the social worker will call the police and you can have the advocate present during the interview with the police if you want to. The advocate will be there to make sure they treat you with respect and observe your rights. The advocate will never repeat anything you tell them to the police. You can of course ask the advocate to leave the room during your police interview.

    You can also take prophylactic medication to prevent pregnancy or STI infection. A doctor will explain any risks or side effects of doing so. The advocate will get you something to eat and drink with your medication because taking that many pills at once often upsets people’s stomachs. If you take HIV prophylactics, you will need a follow-up appointment with the hospital’s virology clinic and some pills to take until that appointment; the advocate will arrange that for you.

    The advocate will help you find transportation home, and offer you information about follow-up services. These services are totally optional, and the social work office will not call you without your permission. Services are not limited to therapy; the office can help file claims with OVS, help apply for U visa if you have concerns about immigration status, liaise with the police and prosecutor’s offices, or help with any other practical issues that come up.

    I don’t know what other hospitals are like, and all the procedures regarding police and evidence collection will be different for other states. I just want to point out that there are options. No one can legally coerce you into doing an SAE kit; that in itself would be a sexual assault. Even if the hospital is required to call the police, a good advocate can keep them from bullying you. There are very legitimate reasons to not want to deal with police, doctors or bureaucracy after a traumatic event, but your health comes first, and I hope that advocates can make the process less awful for you.

    Wow, that was long. I hope it was helpful!

  26. Can we get a list of hotlines somewhere? I have to say, as someone without health insurance who struggles a LOT with depression and suicidal thoughts, I never thought there could be something so wonderful. How much I could have used a hotline last month when I was really, really bad… Thing is, almost all of these seem UK-based. Until I get health insurance (probably August), I am in a perpetual cycle of okay, anxious, depressed or angry, suicidal, wildly happy, okay, anxious, depressed or angry, suicidal, wildly happy.

    I need help, but I didn’t know there were free numbers we could call! A list would be so helpful.

      1. Wow. I could just kiss you. Thank you Nell! I didn’t even know to search for them before and in the last two hours I’ve found quite a few that could have made a huge difference for me just last month.

        1. Pleased to be of use! 🙂

          I’d recommend, just FTR, treating hotlines as you would a therapist. If one doesn’t fit, move on to the next– it’s perfectly legit to “fire” a service that isn’t working for you.

          It might help also to write out what you want to say in advance if you’ve got anxiety issues when it comes to talking about things, and you can tell whoever you’re talking to as much.

  27. Jumping on the wagon of different services are different, the rape crisis hotline I volunteer for handles calls a bit differently than many other hotlines. The volunteers take calls from their personal phones, so when you call in, you get an answering service who will connect you to volunteers (either by getting a name, it need not be your real one, and a number to reach you at in the next 5-10 minutes or by “patching” you through, if you won’t leave a number). From there, we work like any other hotline. We do sometimes have a 5-10 minute delay; I often take overnight shifts and sometimes have to wake up to take calls, so I give myself the allowed 5 minutes to be awake enough to talk to someone.

    It takes courage to call a hotline, and talk to someone. I never had the courage when I was younger, and now, the thing that scares me most is that someone will need our services and not have the courage to reach out to us. If that’s what you’re facing, believe me, we WANT you to reach out, we WANT to help you. The most heart breaking call I’ve had was the person who I called back who said ze didn’t want to talk/didn’t need to talk. I could hear how upset ze was, but we respect the choice not to talk to us as well.

    A note about listening, and how different hotlines have different policies: My hotline ONLY deals with the after effects of sexual assault (I say after effects because there’s not really a thing we can do in the moment, but we do deal with ongoing situations and try to help the caller find safety/resources). If your call isn’t related to that, we’ll try to get you connected to other resources, but we’re not trained to help with anything else. I know that can sound harsh, but we’re trying to provide the best help possible, and we’d rather get you to a resource that CAN help, than provide mediocre or not-helpful service. We also limit the details that people tell us about the assault, and while this may seem harsh, in my year of volunteering I’ve seen conversations that seemed to be helping get derailed by talking about details. Talking about what happened can actually be really triggering, and is something that should be done with a trained counselor, which hotline volunteers are not. (Or at least, on my hotline we’re not, even if that’s our day job. I imagine there are other hotlines that do have trained counselors, but many will not.)

    And one final note: if you call, and we’re not helpful, there are other hotlines out there, and we’re not insulted if you call them. It’s also the case that we are made up of MANY volunteers, and some of us will be spot on for what you need, and some won’t, and sometimes we have off shifts. Just because one call didn’t go well, don’t give up on reaching out for help. Call us back and ask to speak to someone else. Call a different number. There are some great links in the other comments, and I know the Captain has a resource list with national numbers. We’re volunteering because we care, and we want you to get help – the right help for you.

  28. For those who’ve worked for hot lines, and those who’ve called them: I have a question about putting callers on hold.

    I once called a suicide hotline and, before asking me any questions, the operator immediately asked me if he could put me on hold. I later met a volunteer for a suicide hotline who happened to mention in conversation that it annoyed her that callers didn’t understand that they had a lot of calls and had to put people on hold. (I had never told her about my experience.)

    I feel like it could be “push-you-over-the-cliff” traumatizing to be put on hold by a suicide hotline, but it sounds like it’s a common experience. Has anyone else had experience with this?

    Unrelated, a friend of mine once advised me to call a hotline before I needed it, for “practice” just in case my depression got worse. I thought that was brilliant advice. In fact, IIRC, I think that’s how I found out I’d be put on hold right away — so I developed a different, better plan for dealing with my depression if it became more severe.

    1. I can’t speak to putting callers on hold, because the Samaritans doesn’t do that. The problem there, of course, is that presumably then some calls just don’t get answered. (I don’t know whether that’s true, because our works on a bouncing system and I think it’s unlikely that every phone in the country would be busy at the same time, but i guess that takes a long time and people might hang up before they got connected, thinking that their call was never going to be answered.)

      So, I’m not sure which is the best system. Answering every call, but putting them on hold? Or no hold, but possibly no answer as a result?

      Actually, I also don’t know what it sounds like to ring the Samaritans. Maybe instead of a ringing tone there’s a message saying they’re trying to connect you, so you’re automatically kind of on hold?

      Would that be a good solution?

    2. Hmmm. Both places I’ve worked in are small and local, and neither has an operator or on hold system. If you call when everyone there is already speaking to someone, you get through to the answerphone message (the same as if you’d called outside our opening hours), where you can leave your number for us to call you back as soon as someone is available. We also give the numbers of a couple of other lines you can call if you need to talk to someone Right Now.

      There isn’t a really perfect solution to this problem that I can think of 😦 . Larger networks like the Samaritans can do some call distribution across multiple centres to help even out the load, so that volunteers aren’t sitting around without anything to do *and* callers aren’t having to wait to get through, but I assume even that has its limits some days when things are extra busy. How easy it is to get through may also depend on the policies they have on how long you can talk for, as that’s a bit of a balancing act too.

      I guess this is one of those areas where each organisation needs to come up with a system that best suits its situation and the needs of its callers. But your comment is a good reminder that it’s really important to actually check in with callers about how they feel about it, rather than assuming they understand all the behind the scenes stuff that we have to deal with. I hope that not getting through wouldn’t be ”push-you-over-the-cliff’ traumatising’, and as far as I can see from what literature I could find it doesn’t seem to be, but I suppose we can’t say for certain. It’s hard enough getting feedback from our existing (but anonymous) users as it is, knowing what happens with the ones we didn’t even speak to is almost impossible.

      Calling before it’s a serious emergency, to work out if a particular service (or helplines in general) is/are useful for you is absolutely genius advice which I’m going to start giving out myself. Thank you so much for that.

  29. I don’t want to be negative, but I admit I’ve had a couple bad experiences with hotlines. Both times I called, it was late and I was feeling suicidal. The volunteer snapped at me for being overwrought and said I needed to calm down if I wanted to do this call. Both took it personally that my emotions were out of control. Is this normal or did I just have bad luck?

    1. You probably just had bad luck. Or what the volunteer thought they were saying was different than what you heard.

      As someone who takes late night calls, I know sometimes what I think I’m saying versus what the caller is hearing are different things. “I can’t help you right now because you seem to be having trouble communicating” is not me taking the caller’s emotional state personally, it’s me trying to effectively communicate the limitations of my ability, but I’m sure callers can hear it as me snapping at them or taking it personally.

      It’s also possible that the volunteers were taking it personally and snapping at you. I don’t know. It should not be normal on any hotline.

  30. I called a suicide hotline once.

    Biggest mistake of my life.

    In fairness, I was suicidal. I was suicidal because I’d just been fired. I’d just been fired because my boss found out I was suicidal. What I was suicidal of /before/ getting fired was, ironically, fear of being fired. And I was afraid of being fired because my vengeful ex (although they aren’t my ex at that point) had threatened to fabricate some rape and child porn charges and get me arrested, because my vengeful ex was kind of an asshole like that.

    So anyway. I called a suicide hotline because I was suicidal. I figured, “I don’t actually want to die, not when I think things through for a second, but I am terrified and angry and afraid and I know I have a propensity for self-harm and want nothing more than to smash my face in with this goddamn cast-iron skillet my ex got me. I should probably call someone and talk and calm down. These folks know how to listen and be compassionate, right?”

    If they do, they did not. Not to me, not that night.

    They hung up on me twice. It’s only because I’m a stubborn ass that I bothered calling a third time, and the hotline’s response to me telling them I was suicidal (something I would imagine they hear every goddamn day) was to send the cops.

    The fucking cops.

    The fucking cops, who broke down the door (which I had to pay to replace), wrestled me to the ground, /beat me with nightsticks/, dragged me outside, handcuffed me, tore my apartment apart searching for god knows what, and carted me off to an involuntary commitment that lasted a whole damn week. I got billed more than $60 grand for the privilege of being handcuffed and held against my will. I consider myself lucky the DA decided to drop the “resisting arrest” and “obstruction of justice” charges (for not falling down as fast as the cops wanted when they beat my face in and stomped on my stomach while destroying my apartment).

    I wish I could say there was a happy ending to any of this, but the number one lesson I’ve learned since college is there are no happy endings: the best and worst thing about life is that it keeps on going.

    1. Wow. I’m so sorry that happened to you.

      By the sound of it I’m not in the same country as you, but for what it’s worth for other worried readers, this isn’t something we’d even be able to do if we wanted. We can’t see your phone number and we can’t tell emergency services (or anyone else) your location or identity, only any details you’ve supplied to us. So if you haven’t volunteered those details to us we don’t have them to pass on. Our policy is to only call emergency services if we’re requested to by the caller, and we prefer callers to that themselves if they possibly can.

      I hope you don’t mind me adding some information here. This isn’t stuff I would expect someone who is in crisis to think about or do, but for the information of people reading this post: if you’re worried about whether your situation may reach the limit of the confidentiality a helpline/hotline can support, the best thing to do is to call and ask them hypothetically before telling them any details about it or yourself. Their website may also have this information for you (e.g. the Samaritans, Childline). Examples of things that may (may) be more than what the service can keep to themselves could include children or other vulnerable people being abused, or someone being at immediate risk of death. What exactly would fall into those categories, and what would then be done about them is going to vary.

      Since there are probably more people reading this from the US than from anywhere else, can any US volunteers chime in with what your legal/organisational requirements are?

      Again fat_sad_guy, I’m really sorry this happened to you.

      1. In the US (I’m pretty sure the whole of it, although details vary by location), we have what’s called mandated reporting, which means “in these situations, confidentiality does not apply because I am legally required to report this situation”.

        There are 3 situations for mandated reporting:
        1) The person is a danger to themself or others (suicidal/homicidal, usually, although some places lump “self harm” into danger-to-self)
        2) There is a child in danger (abuse/neglect, can be happening at home or anywhere else)
        3) Elder/disabled persons abuse/neglect.

        In the first situation, for the place where I volunteer, we try to avoid the first situation, and we do that by contracting for safety: Promise not to do anything for the next x time period, if you’re still feeling that way, here is what you will do to stay safe (call us, call someone else, etc). If we can’t do that, then we might get emergency services involved. It depends on how much information we have to give. Getting emergency services involved is a last resort. (I’m pretty sure when I say emergency services we mean hospital/ambulance type, but I don’t know for sure.)

        For the other two, if we have the information, we must make a report. Sometimes we don’t have enough information, and then the higher ups might not actually make a report, but they have to keep very good records about when we hear about things, and what information we get, etc. My organization has been taken to court before for issues related to not reporting, so we’re super careful about it.

        That said, we can’t report anything that is talked about in hypotheticals, because a hypothetical isn’t real (or might not be, or might have fabricated facts, or who knows).

        I, too, am very sorry about what happened when you called them, fat_sad_guy.

  31. I’ve never called a hotline because I feel like the problems that drive me to be suicidal are too vast and complex for me to explain in a way that would get me any adequate care. Does anybody have any thoughts on this?

    1. A hotline (or an advice columnist) is never going to fill the gap of actual psychiatric care by probably a group of professionals – someone to prescribe meds, someone to talk through long-standing issues and monitor healing, and perhaps a hospital setting.

      So this post is about letting you know what to expect (a friendly person who wants to talk to you, maybe some referrals to other services). You may come away with one phone number and one 20-minute conversation with someone, which, yes, that is an inadequate safety net between you and self-annihilation, but you could tell the volunteer “I am suicidal” and “I am afraid that I don’t know how to unpack what’s actually wrong for you right now” and that would be better, maybe, than being suicidal alone?

      I know when depressed it’s very easy to think in terms of all-or-nothing, so a hotline needs to do all or else it does nothing, but maybe think of that call as fighting that all-or-nothing impulse. One tiny step.

      1. This. A hotline is not a long term care plan, nor is it an “unpack everything” counseling thing. What a hotline wants to know is: what is going on for you RIGHT NOW? (flashbacks, nerves, suicidal/self harm thoughts, feeling lonely, etc) And what can we (you and the hotliner) come up with to get you through this moment to the next/to when you can next get more complete care? Sometimes that is connecting you to longer term resources, sometimes that is just chatting, sometimes that is coming up with a plan, or helping you come up with things you can do to cope right now. But a hotline generally does not need you to unpack EVERYTHING. Just enough to know what’s going on right now, and what will help you in this moment.

        You never need to unpack more than is comfortable for you. I’d say that a hotline should be able to handle “I’m suicidal” without needing to know the why behind it, although they might ask questions to see if they can help you find options for fixing things going forward, if that makes sense. But don’t feel like you need to unpack everything for them to be helpful.

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