May is Mental Health Awareness Month. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 26% of Americans are diagnosed with a mental health illness in any given year. The purpose of Mental Health Awareness Month is to increase the visibility of these disorders, and to erase the stigma associated with mental health issues.
A couple of years ago I worked on the county crisis and suicide hotline. My life personally has also been deeply affected by suicide on more than one occasion. Ask anyone and they will tell you that they know someone who has committed suicide, or they know of someone who was affected by someone else’s suicide. Major Depressive Disorder is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. for people ages 15-44. Want to see an interesting statistic? The highest suicide rates in the U.S. are found in white men over age 85.
In order to work on the crisis hotline I went through a series of interviews and then 40 hours of training. I worked one 4 hour shift per week. 90% of the calls were on the crisis hotline, I didn’t get too many on the suicide line. When a person calls the national suicide hotline phone number (1-800-273 TALK or 1-800-273-8255) they are routed to the closest crisis hotline.
I have heard people say that they were not treated well when they called a crisis hotline, but I think that the people I worked with were extremely compassionate and caring. A crisis hotline isn’t quite like you think it is. We had the same people calling all the time, sometimes daily. On our hotline we only allowed one call per day with a maximum time of 20 minutes for repeat callers. Someone calling in a true crisis didn’t have a time limit.
Many of these people spent their entire day calling hotlines in the area. Some of the other hotlines around here didn’t have time limits like we did. I got to know our regular callers well during the time I worked on the hotline. I also took calls from people in true crisis. There was a teenager who had just come out to his parents and peers; his father wasn’t speaking to him and he was being bullied at school. Another young man was going to college in DC when he had a severe mental break, and his parents flew out here from California. They called us for help. The kids and the elderly were the hardest for me; they affected me the most.
I remember one of my calls from my last day on the hotline. This call was from a regular, Al. Al was angry, he was always angry. He would call screaming and cursing about whatever thing had set him off that day. The things he got angry about were frustrating, but not life altering episodes. But he also had such a human side to him, I really did enjoy talking to him, even though I had only spoken with him a few times over the year.
I let him rant and rave. He would go on and on, then he would apologize. I told him that there was no need to apologize, that is what I am there for. If that is what he needed, then I would sit and listen to him scream and curse. He told me that other hotline volunteers didn’t feel that way, and asked him to stop screaming and cursing. I told him that I wasn’t like the other volunteers. That as long as he was not yelling and cursing at me it was fine. I would just listen. I validated his feelings along the way, telling him that what happened was indeed frustrating, and the fact that he couldn’t do anything about it was even more frustrating. I did not tell him what to do, or offer suggestions as to how to fix the situation.
By the end of the call he was calm and he decided he would go to the outing he had planned that night, despite having decided not to go earlier.
When I left the office at the end of each shift, I knew I felt good about my calls, but I wasn’t really sure how I actually helped these people. I felt that all I did was sit there and listen to them. It’s somewhat difficult not being in the room with the person, I couldn’t read their body language, or notice the unspoken words. It’s harder to read between the lines. And yet, the anonymity and space between us also made things easier. Callers feel less vulnerable when they were not in the same room with us.
If you know anyone who you suspect is suffering from depression, don’t think you will cause them to commit suicide if you bring up the subject. It is important to ask them if they are feeling like they will hurt themself, or if they have a plan or the means to kill themself. Call a hotline if you are worried about yourself or a friend or family member, they will help you to make the right choices.