Health

My One Shift as a Suicide Prevention Hotline Worker

An unexpected source of my extreme discomfort: the very people I was trying to help.
November 30, 2016, 8:00pm
Photo: Lior + Lone / Stocksy

I remember hours spent on my bedroom floor. Too tired to move, I filled my days thinking of ways to end the profound exhaustion. I counted each step from the bedroom to the bathroom. I foraged the medicine cabinets, fantasizing about cocktails of medicine and cleaning supplies. I googled a lot, finding a checklist that helped me discover I was indeed suicidal.  I researched suicide hotlines, but decided not to call. I felt like my pain wasn't "serious" enough.

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No one teaches the average person how to talk about being suicidal, and most of us don't learn how to support someone in that kind of distress. When I mentioned to a close friend that I wanted to die, she said, "Awwww…no you don't."  She grabbed my hand as if her touch could stop the flow of pain. I felt rage building, but I didn't press the topic. Though openly discussing suicidal thoughts can reduce the risk of suicide, I absorbed what I felt was a clear message that my feelings were best kept to myself.

I was lucky. A few months later, during graduate school, I pushed myself to use free counseling services available to me. The first walk from my classroom to the Psychological Services was one of the most arduous I've ever made, but I showed up. I kept showing up. I kept a weekly appointment for over two years. By the time my counseling sessions ended, I'd graduated from school and was teaching in the department where I studied. Slowly, I understood that my feelings were valid enough to share. Though suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States (above homicide), many who know me now wouldn't think I'd spent months in my bedroom fantasizing about my own death. To them, my decision to volunteer at a suicide prevention hotline seemed pretty random. Friends and family repeatedly asked why I'd want to become a suicide prevention volunteer.

"I just feel called to help others," I'd mumble without any further explanation.

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For about two months, I trained for a volunteer position at one of the only 24-hour crisis hotlines in the area. The training was strict—lateness and over-analyzing (too many questions about the nature of callers) were grounds for termination. And every lecture and activity was designed to strip volunteers of any illusions of their own splendor. Over and over we learned that hotline work is not about the volunteer. The crisis hotline wasn't a place for us to express our desire for a better human race, or to share our well-worn advice. It wasn't a venue for us to polish our ideas about our own benevolence.

Nursing the idea that you're going to 'save people' is deeply problematic in any volunteer context, but on the hotline—a place of life and death—it can be detrimental. Preconceived notions about who is "worth saving" can dictate how you respond to a caller. We were told that we were as likely to speak with a rape victim as we were to speak to a rapist. In some instances our caller might be both. People dropped out of the program every single week, but as we all inched closer to our first shift, I began to internalize the idea that there was no such thing as "good" or "bad."  As a crisis hotline operator, I'd serve whoever showed up on the other side of the line.

I thought I grasped this concept. I didn't.

My first shift was also my last. It's embarrassing to admit, but those four hours shook me to my core. It wasn't the sadness of the callers. It wasn't even the surge of calls that came in hour two when I couldn't finish my post-call paperwork before answering another call. I quit because more than 25 percent of the calls I fielded during my first shift were considered "obscene calls." This isn't an anomaly. From Reddit threads to formal studies, obscene phone calls are a known facet of suicide hotline work. In fact, a study conducted by the University of Nottingham found that among hotline volunteers, obscene calls are a major reason for high turnover rate. The study, which included interviews from 66 crisis hotline workers in the UK, suggested that the emphasis on remaining non-judgmental left many feeling helpless and resentful.

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Most crisis hotline workers are trained to expect the occasional obscene phone call. We are told, with great emphasis, that if we rush to judgement about an obscene phone caller, we might miss an opportunity to help someone who is truly at risk. A sex addict, for instance, might seem like an obscene phone caller at first, but they could truly be in need of support. In role plays and open discussions we practice remaining unaffected, but nothing prepared me for the moans and heavy breathing. Nothing prepared me for the shame that washed over my body as every question I asked became perverse in the mouths of the inappropriate callers. I was completely disarmed when, after ending one phone call, the same person called back to continue where he'd left off.

I am a firm believer in the efficacy of hotline work, but the emphasis on being non-judgmental required I become a participant in my own sexual exploitation. Obscene and sexual harassment phone calls are fairly common in all kinds of call center and hotline work; but my job required I give these callers my time. In an effort to be unbiased, I felt robbed of my autonomy.

At the end of my shift, I debriefed with the male supervisor who'd reprimanded me for prematurely ending an obscene phone call. When we finished, I smiled, grabbed my belongings and rushed out onto the street. I was completely anonymous (the location was confidential and my name wasn't given), yet I stood outside overwhelmed by panic. Someone can use me for sexual gratification without consent. In this role, I'm not allowed to end the call. I could still hear the breathing and the lewd comments. On the subway ride home, I was suspicious of every man I saw. My eyes darted from one man to the next, wondering if I was on the subway with people who harass female crisis center volunteers.

That's when I knew I couldn't do this kind of work. The phone calls weren't funny; they were triggering. I told myself I was silly for being so offended, but in the end, it was one of my best friends (an assault survivor) who told me I was right to feel personally attacked. Being forced to sit on the phone while a person completes a sex act is, in fact, a credible form of abuse. In a study conducted at a call center in Germany, three out of four women experienced sexual harassment calls at work. Some women surveyed even cited "extreme stress" which provoked a diminished sense of personal safety and caused a negative impact on their overall well-being and job satisfaction. My reactions weren't necessarily disproportionate. I was fortunate, to some extent, that I had the luxury of quitting.

Sometimes I wonder if there is a way to do hotline prevention work that provides a safe space for every caller while protecting volunteers. I sometimes wonder if I would have felt more supported had my shift supervisor been a woman. I don't know for sure. An older study that assessed the perceived stress levels of volunteers found that suicidal calls were, naturally, ranked the most stressful, and obscene calls weren't far behind. The amount of perceived stress and a caller's ability to manage that stress was directly related to eventual burnout and attrition. It's comforting and disconcerting to know I'm not alone.

Ultimately, my single shift taught me a great deal more than the fact that creepy guys call suicide hotlines for phone sex. Through the few hours I spent handling the other 75 percent of callers, I finally understood that my personal depression and suicidal ideation was part of a larger cultural narrative. I found that emotional distress is universal, and many of us just need a place to discuss the thoughts we keep inside.

Whether a caller was dealing with a breakup or a terminal diagnosis, all forms of grief deserve adequate space to breathe. There isn't a particular situation that makes a person more worthy of psychological support. And though I was deeply rattled by the obscene callers, I'd argue that they, too, are trying to mitigate their own struggles. Though I understand I'm not equipped to do hotline work, I take comfort in the fact that, as you read this, volunteers are busy providing support for those among us who are struggling to survive.