Why crisis lines are calling for more volunteers

  • Kim Vadner of Aurora is one of 12 volunteers who answer calls to the Suicide Prevention Services of America hotlines for suicide prevention and depression in Batavia, but the agency says it needs more people to respond to the volume of calls.

      Kim Vadner of Aurora is one of 12 volunteers who answer calls to the Suicide Prevention Services of America hotlines for suicide prevention and depression in Batavia, but the agency says it needs more people to respond to the volume of calls. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

Updated 2/26/2018 11:50 AM
Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct the year the Crisis Text Line launched.

Two Batavia-based hotlines answer calls from people at their lowest moments -- when they're depressed, overwhelmed or even considering suicide.

But while the hotlines are staffed by a dozen volunteers and six interns, they're sometimes still short-handed and forced to turn calls over to other sites among the 160 call centers in the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline network.


"Sometimes we don't have enough people to answer every call that comes through," said Stephanie Follis, coordinator of volunteers at Suicide Prevention Services of America, which fielded roughly 7,000 calls last year on suicide prevention and depression hotlines in Batavia. "We try to answer as many calls as we can."

Many local crisis hotlines say there's a shortage of people willing to work at all hours to respond when callers need help the most. The Batavia hotlines, for example, operate from 8 a.m. to midnight each day -- instead of 24/7 -- due to staffing issues.

"We have a really high need for volunteers," Follis said. "We have a lot of shifts that need to be filled."

Call centers say they experience frequent turnover, sometimes because student volunteers move on and sometimes because people take the training but never follow through.

It's happening amid the broader political climate and a growing awareness of mental health concerns that affects the demand for crisis assistance.

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"During periods of high stress due to economic or political issues, we see that the people we are serving need more help and want to call more often," said Cheryl Brown, director of Crisis Line of the Fox Valley at the Association for Individual Development in Aurora.

Both Suicide Prevention Services of America and the Association for Individual Development are addressing their need for volunteers by sponsoring training sessions next month. Volunteers needn't be educated in mental health, social work or counseling, officials say. But they must commit to training, take regular shifts and learn techniques of active listening and calm response.

The skills match the purpose of the hotlines: assisting callers of all ages, abilities and mental states to find ways to help themselves.

"Our job isn't to fix the problem," said Adriana, a staff member at the Crisis Line of the Fox Valley, who asked not to use her last name to protect her privacy on the line. "Our job is to get them to tomorrow."

'Crisis is hard'

There long have been ways to seek help in a crisis without calling 911.

Crisis Line of the Fox Valley, for example, has been around more than 30 years. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255, a network of call centers including the one in Batavia, was established in 2005.


More recently, text-based services have joined the mix, with the Crisis Text Line opening in 2013 nationwide and in Naperville late last year.

These services provide emotional support to bring those who reach out "from a hot moment to a cool calm," said Elizabeth Sweezey Morrell, crisis counselor coach for the texting service, which is available by sending "REACH" to 741741.

Responders must be prepared to ask open-ended questions, to assess each caller's situation and to guide him or her to the next steps without judgment, staffers say. And they must be ready for anything.

"Crisis is hard because you have these people entrusting you with one of the most valuable things they have," Adriana said. "And that's their story and their needs."

A call to a crisis hotline might come from someone Googling "how to kill yourself," then dialing a help line instead. It might be a grief-stricken relative of someone who died by suicide, a panicked homeowner unsure how to handle a leaking roof, an immigrant fearful for his or her future, or a laid-off worker anxious about health care.

"We believe that crisis is in the eye of the beholder," Adriana said.

Mental health conditions -- specifically anxiety and depression -- are at the root of most calls from regulars, people who dial the Crisis Line of the Fox Valley, at (630) 966-9393, almost every day.

"Some would call every 15 minutes if we would allow it," Brown said.

Hence the need for volunteers. Roughly 20 volunteers help with the line now, as do 11 employees and four substitutes, allowing it to be available 24/7, Brown said.

"We accept the lonely, the depressed, the anxious," she said. "You name the problem, we accept it."

'Minds at ease'

Becoming a volunteer on any of these lines requires hours of training about how to lead conversations, de-escalate tense situations and direct callers to resources.

Roughly 4,000 trainees nationwide are actively volunteering with the Crisis Text Line, but the service is always on the lookout for more -- especially if they're night owls, Morrell said.

"There are definitely texters waiting for us, particularly late at night," she said.

When spikes of texts come at once, the service uses software to gauge the severity of each situation, then places messages in a queue to be handled accordingly. The service has responded to 61.8 million text conversations since 2015 and sees increasing volume as people become aware of it.

Text line volunteers, who work from a location of their choice, are taught to explore texters' concerns, help them set goals and work collaboratively on problem-solving -- instead of just giving them solutions. Morrell said volunteers offer short-term support and, in many cases, direct texters to online resources for continued help, such as support groups, blogs, chat services or service directories.

Locally, Crisis Line of the Fox Valley volunteers and staffers refer only to nonprofit or governmental agencies, often groups that provide low-income medical help or immediate housing, as well as hotlines for sexual abuse, domestic violence or alcoholism.

Volunteers, including Kim Vadner of Aurora at Suicide Prevention Services of America, often refer to local Survivors of Suicide groups, which support the loved ones of people who took their own lives.

Line operators say it's tough to pinpoint what triggers increases in calls. But they expect the uncertainties of the world, along with the struggles of people coping with mental health conditions, will continue the need for calm communicators ready to turn a crisis into a plan for action.

"If I can answer some phone calls and hopefully put some minds at ease," Vadner said, "then it's a good day."

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