Barbara Brown* of Bellmore, New York spends six hours a week mostly just listening to people on the phone. From a Long Island call center staffed by scores of volunteers, she listens to lonely individuals who are scared, unsupported, and dealing with life stresses or mental health challenges. Often, these callers are considering ending their life. It’s up to Brown to connect with them and offer support.

As a suicide hotline volunteer at Long Island Crisis Center, Brown’s voice could be the one a desperate caller hears when he or she picks up the phone to call in. And in the year and a half that she’s been volunteering as a hotline worker, Brown has helped scores of callers to rethink their decision and to consider getting help.

“A lot of the people who call just want to hear a voice, they’re just looking for someone who will listen,” says Brown, a retired school counselor. “They often tell me that they don’t have anyone to reach out to and they don’t have any support system to help them.”

At Long Island Crisis Center’s Call Center, which runs a 24-hour, 365-days-a-year suicide hotline and is staffed with 80 volunteers, the calls that come in don’t always have to do with an imminent threat of suicide. “We get calls from folks who tell me that their family doesn’t understand and just tells them either to suck it up or to stop trying to get attention,” Brown explains. “I tell them, well, part of you doesn’t want to die because you called in here and you are talking to me and that’s terrific.”

Not Everyone Can Do It

For Brown, the decision to become a suicide hotline volunteer was an easy one. “I wanted to do something to help the community,” she says. “I know that suicide is a huge problem, especially within some groups, like teenagers, veterans, and police officers.”

Long Island Crisis Center is one of a few centers where the hotline workers are all volunteers. Each volunteer receives more than 160 hours of training before handling phone calls on their own, explains Joseph Walsh, LMSW, Crisis Center Director at the Long Island Crisis Center.  “We prepare our counselors for any type of call that comes in,” Walsh explains boasting that his crisis center is “known for having one of the best hotline training programs around.”

Hotline workers at the Long Island Crisis Center. Photo courtesy Joseph Walsh.

How to Become a Hotline Volunteer

The training process is thorough and intense, according to Walsh adding that “not everyone is cut out for this type of work.”  After filling out an application form, trainees participate in weekly three-hour classes on a variety of subjects. The classes cover everything from how to respond to calls about substance abuse and child abuse to domestic violence and suicide prevention. After several weeks of attending classes, the counselor-in-training partners with an experienced counselor, and begins listening in on calls.

Hearing how experienced counselors handle calls is an important learning tool and helps the trainee gain confidence, Walsh says. “This is skills-based volunteering—but those skills can be developed and taught to almost anyone in the community who is passionate about helping others and preventing suicide.”

At the conclusion of the “coaching” period—multiple sessions of being guided through calls alongside a mentor counselor who reviews the calls and provides feedback to help the trainee see areas where improvements could be made—the new volunteers are ready to become solo counselors. “It really takes six months to become a good counselor and to be able to answer the phone solo,” Walsh says.

To guard against volunteers becoming traumatized by a disturbing call, a paid and trained staff person is always available for call debriefing. “A large section of training is also devoted to the importance of self-care and we spend time counseling volunteers on how to avoid bringing upsetting calls home,” Walsh explains.

Overnight Coverage Makes a Difference

Long Island Crisis Center is staffed around the clock and has been since its founding in 1971. “We do have a team of overnight counselors,” Mr. Walsh says. “We understand that a crisis situation doesn’t always wait for a convenient time.”

Many times, he says, a caller already has a therapist or other support person but can’t reach that person. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of talking to someone and giving them extra support until their next appointment with their therapist,” Walsh says.

Long Island Crisis Center volunteers answer 10 hotlines, including the Center’s Crisis and Suicide Hotline (516-679-1111) as well as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255). Volunteers, who always work out of the Bellmore call center, maybe retired police officers, retired teachers, or stay-at-home parents who want to give back to the community. “There are no educational or professional prerequisites for going into our training program,” Walsh says.

Volunteers also answer the 24/7 Senior Connection Hotline (Walsh points out that while individuals 65 and above constitute 12.5% of the country’s population, they account for 14.5% of all the suicides.) In addition to the hotline, callers can chat online from their computer or can message from their tablet or smartphone. Last year, the Center responded to 13,000 calls.

Listening with the Heart

For  Brown, volunteering as a suicide hotline worker is extremely rewarding. “I like to think that I make some kind of impact on folks, even if it is just putting the thought out there that life doesn’t have to end,” she says.

But there are times when volunteering is frustrating, she says. “Some callers tell me, they tried in the past to kill themselves and that very little was done afterward in terms of follow-up therapy,” Brown says. “Or a caller will say they’ve tried therapy and it didn’t work. When I explain that sometimes it can take a while to find the right therapist, they say they just don’t have the money.”

People who call into the crisis center are asked if they’d like to receive a follow-up call a few days out to check in and see how they are doing but the volunteer making the followup call would likely be different from the original volunteer.

As Brown has gained confidence and experience on the job, she has learned to assess whether callers are in imminent danger of hurting themselves. Sometimes she asks a caller, “Are you safe right this minute? I can send help to you right now.”

Having empathy is crucial according to Brown and it’s imperative that the hotline volunteer quickly establish a relationship with the caller. “You need to really hear what the person is saying so you can identify the feelings behind the words,” she says. “People want their feelings to be taken seriously.”

*Not her real name

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Last Updated: Oct 21, 2019