What It's Really Like To Be A Suicide Prevention Hotline Operator

Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
In honor of National Suicide Prevention Week, which runs from September 7-13, 2015, Refinery29 has produced a series of stories that delve into what it’s like to work at a suicide hotline, current research into the most effective suicide-prevention strategies, and the emotional toll of losing a family member to suicide.

If you or someone you care about is thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433.

Danielle* is a 42-year-old high school teacher with a reputation for asking her students about their emotions. "I’m often the one that says, 'Well, how do you feel?'" she shares. "That’s just what I’m known as." Danielle has honed her listening skills over 15 years of perhaps the most intense and most high-stakes form of active listening there is: answering calls to Samaritans' 24-hour suicide prevention hotline, which has fielded over 1.2 million calls in the past 30 years. Danielle acknowledges that while the work can be grueling, she's motivated by the knowledge that she offers potentially life-saving support to strangers in the worst moments of their lives.

Samaritans executive director Alan Ross echoes Danielle when he stresses the difficulty of communicating with those in crisis. "30 years of experience have taught us that no matter how well-intentioned people are, no matter what their background or education, most people are not effective listeners and do not practice the basic active listening behaviors that are the key to engaging people, especially those in distress," he explains. Danielle, however, understands that her role is not to offer advice but accompaniment. We spoke with her about her approach to taking calls, which ones she finds the most difficult, and why she continues to volunteer.
How did you become a hotline operator?
"I’ve been with Samaritans of New York about 15 years. I was interested in making a difference... There was something about seeing an ad for the hotline that caught my eye. I had had friends that attempted suicide years before, so I think that was on my mind sometimes, too, about how to help people who are dealing with those feelings."

What was the training like?
"The training is pretty grueling. We do a lot of role-playing and practicing, so you’re on the spot. It’s an intense training, and I know some people don’t make it. It goes over several weeks and months — first, it’s a classroom kind of training, and then you get more on the job with supervision. It’s very thorough."

Did you ever doubt your ability to do this work?
"I think the only time when I’ve ever felt that is when I might have had things going on in my own life that were stressful or my mind was preoccupied. When you do this work, you really need to be focused and ready to take any call — whenever that phone rings, you have to just take whatever it is, so if you’re not in the right place for that, if your head is somewhere else, I think that’s the time to take a break or leave.

"We don’t do shifts back-to-back; you have time to take a break from it, so it’s not like it’s a day-to-day job. A shift can be several hours long. I also am a supervisor, so I am somebody who will be on hand to debrief calls with the volunteers. I [also] recently started co-facilitating a support group that they have for people who have lost a loved one to suicide — that’s once a month, so I do a variety of things [at Samaritans]."

How might a specific call be difficult for the person who takes it?
"Sometimes, there’s people who are calling about a specific situation, something like a breakup or getting fired or an argument with somebody… They’re in crisis, and they need to talk to somebody. There’s other people who have ongoing illness or ongoing depression or some kind of pain. That’s a different kind of conversation. They can each be difficult — you want to make sure that person is able to express how they’re feeling. They may be in a heightened state of emotion and a wide range of emotion. They may feel really isolated. We’re trying to alleviate that isolation.

"I always think of it as helping them get through that moment. It could be difficult — someone might be talking about their recent loss, someone who died, [and] maybe someone had died [recently in my life]. It might trigger something for me. Or it could be a young person [who called]. It can be hard to hear that some young person is suffering so much."

Is the hotline busier at certain times than others?
"There’s the typical assumption that the December holidays are worse, [but it’s not true]. There’s ebbs and flows. I’ve volunteered on almost every holiday — Fourth of July, New Year’s Eve, everything… You just can’t predict it."

How would you describe your approach to helping people?
"Samaritans believe in people being able to express their thoughts and feelings without judgment. It’s not about 'you should,' 'you could,' 'do this,' 'do that.' We’re not there to give advice; we want people to have a place where they can be heard and get them through that moment... It carries over into communication with people in your life, just being able to hear what someone says and respond to it, and hopefully they will do that, too, but not everyone has the training."

What keeps you volunteering?
"One thing that’s kept me with Samaritans, with this type of work, is that I know I’m not alone. It is a team effort, even though when you’re on the call, it’s you and the caller... I know if I need support, I have back-up. I can debrief any challenging call or some call that maybe just hit me in a certain way or triggered something. Ideally, that’s what we also have in life: people who will listen to us and be there and be supportive.

"It’s important work, it’s challenging work, and anyone who wants to try it should seek it out. If it’s the right fit for you, it will make a huge difference in your life — to be there for people as they’re going through crisis and they have nobody else to talk to. When a shift is over, you feel like, Yeah, that was intense... You’re just drained, but then it’s like, Okay, I was there for those people, and I was able to help them get through that moment. I can’t change their life, but I was able to listen to them, and they were heard."

*Name has been changed.

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