Our personal experiences in life inform our decisions. I believe that. I don’t believe we wake up one day, never having endured a mental health struggle, and say, “I’m going to be a suicide hotline volunteer today.”
The decision to become a suicide hotline volunteer came as a direct result from a long-time battle with mental health. I hesitate to use the word “after,” as in “the decision came after a long-time battle with mental health” for it implies the battle was fought, either won or lost, now over. Mental health can be forever. Bouts of anxiety, depression, PTSD, etc. are experiences that ebb, I believe. They do not get “overcome” or “won.” We often learn coping skills, which can alleviate or lessen. We “learn to deal,” in our personal ways, whether they involve medication or other coping mechanisms. But mental health issues are never slain like dragons: they either rise, alive, or nap, dormant.
I wanted to become a suicide hotline volunteer because I had been in crisis before: not in a moment of depression or anxiety but a true moment of crisis. I could not see an out in the situation I found myself in — could not see how to climb it, traverse it, pass it. To me, this was the be-all, end-all and wouldn’t it just be so much easier to die?
I thought: Hey, wouldn’t it be easier if these problems were gone? If there were a “gone” button, I would have pressed it. There wasn’t, so I dialed a hotline.
I volunteered at Crisis Text Line for about a year. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be at the other end of those calls, I’ve outlined my experiences below.
We’re Taught to Use “Empathic Phrasing”
The most important part of crisis volunteer training is learning how to “say the right thing” to people in crisis. A huge part of this is understanding empathy, drawing from it, and expressing it to the person in crisis. People in crisis, people dealing with struggles of all kinds, often want to be heard: to talk and hear validation that the other person can understand their perspective.
For this reason, speaking from a place of empathy is key. In training, we nix the question, “Why?” We are trained not to ask “why.” Imagine:
Person 1: “I want to kill myself.”
Suicide hotline volunteer: “Why?”
Doesn’t “why” seem like the most asinine question in that scenario? And then yet, when our friends or family members reach out to us with an issue, it’s the first question we often ask. But it’s a cheating question, a heartless bandit of validation. When you ask “why?” you inherently judge. You ask, what could possibly be so bad to drive you here? It’s not fair. It doesn’t make the person in crisis feel welcome, validated, heard, or loved. It often makes them feel wrong for feeling this way, misunderstood, or judged.
Instead, we are trained to ask empathic questions: “What is going on in your life that’s making you feel this way?” That’s a more empathic phrasing, the syntax of which illustrates to the person in crisis they have a right to feel the way they do. It’s external, not “why do you feel this.” It’s “what’s causing you to feel this?” That distinction is crucial.
Callers/Texters Usually Just Want to Be Heard and Validated
The number one reason people in crisis call suicide hotlines is because they feel the people in their immediate lives don’t hear what they are actually trying to communicate. Talking to someone external, removed from the personal situation, assures the person in crisis that emotions aren’t attached. A wife can hear a husband say, “I’m not happy,” and immediately infer unsaid accusations and emotions from that sentence. While a hotline volunteer will not get offended or jump to emotional conclusions; a hotline volunteer will listen and in turn, the person in crisis will be and feel heard.
It goes back to validating. I’ve engaged in enough crisis situations while being a hotline volunteer to know people want to be heard. They want to say a sentence about their life, about their struggle, and have the other person on the phone say, “That sounds awful.” Because when you say, “That sounds awful,” you validate their struggle, validate their feelings. As crisis counselors, we do not try to dissuade the person in crisis from believing their world or life or circumstance sucks. We agree with them: It sounds like there is a lot on your plate; that must be awful to handle; what I’m hearing is that you’re stressed.
What we do not agree with is the decision to end a life.
We’re There to Remind You That You Have Something to Live For
People do not kill themselves out of boredom; they do not feel suicidal because there is nothing else to do. People feel suicidal because, in temporary moments of crisis, they have forgotten about the coping skills that make them happy.
How many Crisis Text Line conversations have I had that end in the person resolving to read a book instead of kill themselves? Paint a picture? Go for a walk? Call a friend? Watch Netflix? Play with their pet? These things may seem minuscule but there is no big secret to saving someone’s life. Crisis counselors merely work with a person in crisis to figure out the skills that bring them joy, then suggest they do those things instead. Oftentimes when people in crisis remember how happy it makes them to play with their dog in the yard, they remember: Oh, I have something to live for.
Once they find themselves out of a moment of crisis, then can breathe again, see the beauty in life again, see their purpose in life again.
Moments of Crisis Are Actually Shorter Than You Think
That is not to say that moments of crisis are “small,” as in “not big.” Moments of crisis feel massive, bigger than the universe, deeper than uncharted seas. And yet, they occur for a relatively short duration of time.
In anxiety, doctors believe a person cannot physically be in a state of panic for more than 30 minutes. In rare occasions will a panic attack last for over an hour. I believe, although I am no doctor, that moments of crisis are similar. If a person in crisis experiences the 30 minutes alone, it is harder to come out of. But after 30 minutes of discussing issues and coping methods with a trained crisis counselor, those 30 minutes come and go.
Suddenly, the world has a sun again, brightness, meaning. The person in crisis remembers their dog, their sister, their desire to write a book or go back to school.
The crisis counselor’s job is to get the person in crisis past that point of crisis. Whether it’s 30 minutes or longer, once out of the immediate crisis, we often see how beautiful and meaningful the world can be. We often see how important it is to remain in it.
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Steph Osmanski is a freelance writer and social media consultant who specializes in health and wellness content. Her words have appeared in Seventeen, Life & Style, Darling Magazine, and more. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Stony Brook Southampton and writing a memoir.