A crisis hotline phone reads "Crisis Hotline There Is Hope Make The Call" next to a red button that says "Push To Call"
Photo by Steven Clevenger/Corbis via Getty Images

What It’s Like to Spend Election Night Working For a Crisis Line

"As soon as I put my phone down, it started ringing again."
November 4, 2020, 7:28pm

They wanted to know what they would do if there was a civil war. They asked about violence and unrest. One person signed off sarcastically: Happy end of the world. 

With nearly an hour to go before polls closed on the East Coast, Amy O’Leary was winding down from a seven-hour shift taking calls for the Trans Lifeline. The trans-led organization connects transgender people to resources and serves as a crisis hotline, and O’Leary, a Trans Lifeline intern, was fielding a higher-than-average number of calls on Election Day. 

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“As soon as I put my phone down, it started ringing again,” she told VICE News. 

O’Leary was one of many operators taking calls on Election Day and then into the night as these crisis lines staffed up in anticipation of what the election might bring. It’s no secret why: Crisis lines saw a surge in calls in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election. That year, John Draper, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s director, told VICE News there was an 140 percent increase over the normal number of calls as the evening wore on and President Donald Trump’s victory became more and more assured.

On Tuesday, organizations that are part of the National Suicide Prevention Hotline made more staff available through the day and the night, including the Maryland-based organization Every Mind. Rachel Larkin, Every Mind’s director of crisis prevention and intervention services, told VICE News that in her 14 years at the hotline, she’s never heard an election discussed so heavily. In the days leading up to the election, she said, nearly every call touched upon the election. 

That’s why on Tuesday night, Every Mind brought on all the staff members they could, with workers trained to look out for feelings of anxiety, hopelessness and thoughts of suicide. Complicating the uncertainty around the election is also the pandemic, Larkin explained. “We don't know when [the pandemic] is going to end and then we also aren't going to know what's going to happen immediately after this very, very big election,” Larkin said. 

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At Trans Lifeline, the response was similar. The organization also saw the surge of callers in 2016, and received more than 2,000 calls in the week Trump was first elected, according to Bri Barnett, the organization’s interim communications director. The following week, the line received more than 1,300 calls. Leading up to the 2020 election, Barnett said calls were already starting to reflect election anxieties, particularly around the potential of Trump’s reelection, the scenario “where trans people continue to be targeted for a political gain,” she said. Just this year, the Trump administration moved to strip trans-inclusive protections from the Affordable Care Act. 

“We know political attacks really impact the trans community,” Barnett said. And that includes operators. The organization now offers stipends to operators to work on the line during high-stress times, like Election Day. “We want people who want to be on line,” she added. 

For O’Leary, every single call received on Election Day was election-related. “It was sometimes the first thing people were saying,” she said. There is a sense of underlying anxiety in each call, she observed. Even as some callers joked about it, O’Leary could tell some people’s minds were racing. “There have been people saying you know like, ‘oh goodness what if there's a civil war,’” she said. 

It’s difficult for O’Leary, a masters student in social work who has worked in crisis management before, because she doesn’t have any answers either. She does know that anxieties over the election are a shared trauma, though. So, when she’s with callers, she sometimes says, “Yes, it does suck. You’re not alone.”

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Having operators with shared experiences is crucial to this particular crisis line. The Trans Lifeline describes itself as the only crisis line operated entirely by trans people, and that was important to O’Leary when she called the line herself just two days after the 2016 election. “That was the moment I decided I needed to go to Canada,” said O’Leary, who had only recently come out as trans at the time. “I still hadn’t had my legal name changed. I was scared about my rights for health care.”

While the trans community is bigger than people might think, O’Leary said, some people hide their identities, making it harder to connect with others. Meanwhile, she added, not enough mental health professionals have experience working with trans people. “So being able to talk with somebody who has lived experience, who has been in your shoes…is a hugely impactful experience,” she said. It goes both ways, too. For the aspiring social worker, spending time on the crisis line with people on Tuesday, “making them laugh when they're at their lowest,” cheered O’Leary up as well. 

Still, as O’Leary logged off on Tuesday night, the uncertainty around the election weighed heavily on her. Today, she attends a university in Canada and has transitioned. The election will determine whether she moves home after getting her degree or applies for permanent citizenship there.

“I’m going to be honest: I’m stressed as hell,” she said. 

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As O’Leary was finishing her shift, Rachel S., who did not want to share her full name due to privacy concerns, was gearing up for her own shift as part of the National Crisis Text Line. As a counselor for the text-based line, Rachel chats with people in distress over text, working with them on both long-term and short-term coping mechanisms, as well as working on safety plans for people that express a desire to hurt themselves or others.

For the election, Rachel said counselors were given a number of tip sheets on how to respond to election-related anxiety. At 9 p.m., just as early projections were coming in, Rachel said she could see a good number of counselors already online—more so than conversations. By midnight, that was still true. By then, early projections showed Biden in a narrow lead, but many states remained undeclared as states raced to count absentee ballots. When Rachel finally logged off from her three-hour shift, she had spoken with just three people and only one had mentioned the election.

In a group chat of other counselors, some discussed the election-related texts they were receiving, including how to help one person who was inconsolable after about 90 minutes of talking. But Rachel says she doesn’t anticipate any massive surges in texters unless the race is called. She’s taking shifts later in the week in preparation. 

According to a spokesperson for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the crisis line didn’t experience significant changes in call volume on election night. “Volume remained consistent with typical levels,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.

“Maybe people are waiting on the absentee ballots,” Rachel said. “If I sound kind of off, it’s because this election thing is kind of, ahh!” It was the first time in the night she was finally free to check in on election results, but even after hours of fielding texts, “I was tempted to stay on the text line for longer. It feels meaningful to contribute,” she said. 

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-8255.