What It’s Really Like Being a Suicide Hotline Operator

by Lee Wang

Suicide is one of the leading causes of death worldwide. Every year, millions of people take their own lives. There are, thankfully, many suicide hotlines that give people on the edge a chance to reach out and get help. Many people are often afraid to even call a hotline because they think the operator will send the police to their house.

The truth is that no one is going to be arrested or get in trouble for feeling depressed or wanting to end their life. The only time police are called is when the representative fears the person is in immediate danger of harming themselves or others.

Statistics show that most people who commit suicide mention it to someone before their death. Many people may voice their feelings to a family member or friend, but even more might turn to the internet as a way to unload their dark thoughts. Unfortunately, people online can be especially cruel, and many people have even been told to kill themselves by total strangers.

Working for a suicide hotline isn’t for the faint of heart, but it’s not as horrific as some might imagine. In fact, being a responder on a suicide hotline can often provide a level of connection and vulnerability with other people that is difficult to find in day-to-day life.

The Schedule

Most hotlines have 24-hour support online, via text and over the phone. This means that different people work or volunteer for different shifts across various timezones. Some crisis lines require responders to work 12-hour shifts for several days a week, while others may be more flexible depending on the number of staff members they have.

Karen Crouch, a volunteer at the Memphis Crisis Center, says that she works mostly in solitary shifts. You spend a lot of time by yourself, but you’re never alone. There’s always someone on the other end of the line that needs you.

The Callers

Crouch lost her 21-year-old son to suicide. He had been diagnosed with cancer at 15, and Crouch was dealing with her own breast cancer diagnosis at the time of his death. She felt like she needed to help others when she could not ultimately help her son. That’s when she began volunteering for the crisis hotline.

She reveals that many people call the hotline for different reasons; some might just be feeling low and only require 10 to 15 minutes of talking before they’re more level-headed. Others may be on the line for hours.

Crouch says that there’s a particular uptick in callers during the holidays, seasonal changes and after a celebrity suicide. The day after Labor Day 2018, there were over 65 callers.

While some hotlines offer crisis counseling to specific age groups, there is no one-size-fits-all identity. Callers can range from high schoolers to war veterans. An operator’s job isn’t to judge or try and solve everyone’s problem; they’re just there to listen and direct their callers to the help they need.

The Emotional Impact

Working for a suicide hotline is immensely rewarding, but it can also be exhausting. For some, it may even be triggering. Many people who volunteer for the hotlines have either attempted suicide in the past or known someone who took their own life. As such, open dialogue between operators is crucial.

Self-care and mental health is always the top priority, and operators are encouraged to step back when they need to and reach out for comfort after a difficult call.

There is no way to predict what will happen when you pick up the phone; all the operators can do is speak from their hearts, listen with their souls and try their best to convey how much they care to the person on the other end. More often than not, it’s this simple act of being present and listening that saves someone’s life.

You may also like