science of us

My Life As a Suicide Text Line Volunteer

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I’ve been a volunteer with a crisis text line for a few months. The high-profile suicides that happened recently stirred me a little bit, and I had a friend who previously worked for another crisis hotline. She told me a lot about that, and it just really marked me, because she had some very, very difficult conversations, and I thought it was interesting that people felt comfortable sharing with total strangers. So it was always in the back of my mind.

Someone very close to me has a history of [being suicidal], too. And I always love to volunteer, but as a graduate student, it’s hard to find volunteer opportunities that fit with my schedule. I started looking into different opportunities, and I came across the crisis text line. It appealed to me that it was texting and not calling, because the thing my friend had said when she volunteered for the hotline was that it was sometimes really hard to talk to people on the phone. So that’s how that started.

I did some pretty intensive training. I started the training in June. I did an expedited one, so it took two or three weeks. What I really like about the crisis text line is that it’s very data driven. [The organization does] a really good job of doing lots of text analysis, and really learning from all the interactions they have. They’re constantly changing their training based upon what they see. So for example, one of the myths they dispelled was the idea that asking someone if they’re thinking about suicide is bad. Per their data, they say that coming out and asking someone, “Are you thinking about death and dying,” and that kind of thing, is actually very helpful. They just instituted a new guideline to help you during your conversations, where they ask you to, in every conversation, ask the person if they are thinking about suicide.

I do this all on my computer, and when you sign on, there’s a button you press to begin a conversation. Then you wait. Depending on how busy it is, you might get connected to someone right away. Sometimes, unfortunately, I’ve been connected to someone who’s been waiting for 15 minutes to be connected to us. Volunteers are really needed at specific peak times, which seem to be between midnight and 6:00 am. You do what you can.

I’ve definitely had some people text in because they couldn’t reach their local hotline, but sometimes they end up stopping the conversation with me because they prefer to talk to someone on the phone. That’s happened a couple of times. People who text in, usually it seems like that’s their preferred method of communication. It’s really hard to gauge someone’s age because that’s not really a question that comes up. From the context of the conversation, it does seem like it’s quite a few younger people.

People can text us, but they can also use Kik or Facebook Messenger, which is really cool. That probably appeals more to the younger generation of people.

Some people are very forthcoming about why they’re anxious and why they’re feeling this suicidal ideation, and they’re very open about it. For some of them it’s very hard to parse. I think in general, for people in those circumstances, the fact that they’re even reaching out is amazing in itself. That’s a huge step. A secondary step is to have a conversation with someone about why they feel like suicide is their only remaining option. Usually they’re very personal issues. It could be work. A lot of them are relationship issues — things with parents, partners.

The main one has been relationships in general, particularly with significant others. People either on the brink of a breakup or immediately after a breakup, or what seems to be a breakup. It’s very much on that cusp. A lot of the people who do text in share that they’ve been diagnosed with mental illness. Most of them do also have medication available to them, so it does seem like most of the people texting understand where they’re at and realize that they just need help to calm down, which I think is a really powerful thing.

You go through a risk assessment with each person where you ask if they’re thinking of suicide, if they have an idea how they’d do it, and if they have the means to do it on-hand. If they check all those boxes, that’s when you’d contact the supervisor, which is easy to do in any chat. So once you’ve done that risk assessment, you contact the supervisor and they then assess. The whole point of this is to de-escalate the situation. They don’t want to send people [to someone’s house]. But if they feel like there’s an imminent risk, they’ll send the authorities. From my understanding it doesn’t happen super often, but it is something that happens, and that’s why we have trained supervisors on hand.

I usually a schedule a shift for two hours, but I usually do it for about three, because you can’t predict how long it will take to talk to someone. They do give you the option to transfer conversations if you really need to go, but they don’t encourage it. So I try not to do that. I like to finish the conversations I start.

I definitely have a very hard time ending the conversations. The counselors usually want you to talk to someone for about 45 minutes, if it’s not a high-risk situation. I always go over that, because I like establishing that rapport, and spending time digging into it. I always wish I could say more, but at the same time, I realize that’s not good. I’m supposed to serve this role for a short period of time. Anything more than that, that’s the therapist’s role, or someone more highly trained. I’m just filling an intermediate gap while this person is between appointments or having a specific crisis. But I often want the conversation to be longer. I want to know what happens to this person. I want to know if our conversation did anything.

I think the thing that ends up happening is that a lot of the issues people bring up are very similar, so the individual gets kind of lost. We don’t always know their names, so it’s more the story I remember. I do wonder generally if a given issue is going to resolve itself. I try to think of it as what I’ve learned from an interaction. But what happens to any one of these people is kind of a mystery.

Most of the time I feel pretty okay after a shift. I don’t necessarily feel super down or anything. Whenever I chat with other volunteers on this platform, a lot of people have echoed that a lot of times the conversations mirror what’s happening in their own lives. That’s been happening with my conversations with people. A lot of the issues they bring up are issues I’m also experiencing. I don’t know if cathartic is the right word, but it’s like, “Wow, I’m not alone, these people are also struggling, and we’re all here together trying to figure it out.”

I won’t say the thought hasn’t crossed my mind that I feel like I’m not doing enough. I always wish there was more to do. When these people pour their souls out and tell you they don’t have social support, or that the relationships they would usually count on to hold them steady in difficult times aren’t available, any empathetic, human reaction would be, “Wow, I wish I could be there more than this conversation.” But so far, in all my conversations, people have just been really thankful for having someone who just listens. Because I’m not sharing anything about myself in these conversations. I think so many people don’t have that, because any friendship is more of an exchange. But in this circumstance, I think we give people that one opportunity to just talk about themselves. I think the mere fact of giving people the option of just talking about themselves, and being really receptive to it, makes a huge difference, even if I’ll always want to do more than just that. Almost every time I’ve asked a clarifying question, or repeated what I think I’m understanding, the other person is always like “Yes, that’s exactly how I feel.” Not involving yourself makes it a lot easier for you to feel like you’re helping.

My Life As a Suicide Text Line Volunteer