When Carolyn Smigla leaves home to begin her shift at the National Runaway Safeline in Chicago, she always says out loud to her dogs the name of the brother of her son’s friend, who was lost to suicide.
“That’s why I do it, and every single week I remember his name and think of his face and do it for him," she said. "What keeps me volunteering is my own personal wish to be of help to youth, to be an adult who listens and understands.”
Smigla recalled seeing a young homeless woman while walking in the farmers market one day, which jogged her memory of hearing about the National Runaway Safeline. That night she sent an email inquiring how she could help, and soon after she began volunteering with the hotline.
The National Runaway Safeline allows her to be that adult who listens and understands callers, who can calm them down, who can sort through their circumstances and help them create a solution. On any given day, Smigla might be helping a young homeless mother and her child find a youth emergency shelter or providing emotional support to an LGBTQ youth who ran away from an unaccepting home.
According to news reports and interviews, crisis hotlines around the country have experienced a surge of activity and a need for volunteers. Boston.com reported that the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center has seen “an overwhelming number of people reaching out” to the hotline since the #MeToo movement took off late last year. The online news website Vox says that since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, hotlines on the Caribbean island have experienced an 83 percent jump from this time last year in callers who reported suicidal thoughts.
Hira Raja, a crisis counselor coach at Crisis Text Line, a 24-hour organization that helps people in crisis through text messaging, said the number of calls fluctuates, noting a spike in calls after the 2016 election.
“Media influence and things that happen in our current events, things that happen in our world, really do affect people and their mental health,” she said.
But handling calls from people in the throes of a crisis takes a certain type of person, one willing to undergo extensive training and cope with the uncertainty of not knowing the outcome of their interaction with someone who is threatening to take their life.
Across the country, crisis hotline volunteers like Smigla undergo roughly 10 to 40 hours of training. The position doesn’t require a degree in counseling or social work. While many volunteers say reassuring someone who is suicidal or trying to escape an abusive spouse can be traumatic and emotionally draining, most say the feeling that comes from calming a desperate caller makes the job worth it.
“If I get a call and the person is really upset and at the end of the call they thank me and are calm, and they say, 'Thank you very much; I feel a lot better now,' that is so rewarding,” said Lynn Fasciano, a crisis hotline volunteer at Utah Domestic Violence Coalition in Salt Lake City.
Though crisis hotline volunteers are trained to assist people in difficult and sometimes traumatic and life-threatening circumstances, the volunteers are not professional therapists. The volunteer's top priority is connecting callers to helpful resources.
“We’re a listening line and a resource line, so that’s the difference,” said Laura Vanderhoff, volunteer director at Utah County Crisis Line in Provo. “A lot of times, we are the liaison. If someone calls and they’re a high suicide (risk), we get them the help they need, so our volunteers are trained effectively on those types of procedures.”
Linking callers to organizations that could provide assistance is a way hotline volunteers empower individual callers to come up with their own solutions to their problems, explained Samantha Candland, volunteer coordinator at Utah Domestic Violence Coalition.
“The overall goal is to get people connected to whatever resource fits their situation and to create somewhat of a safety plan around it,” Candland said. “How do we keep you as safe as possible in whatever situation you’re choosing to be in? Answer the call, analyze the situation, look through the resource manuals to find places that could be of assistance and then create a plan of action or a safety plan around whatever scenario the caller might potentially be in.”
Morris Floyd, a crisis hotline volunteer for the National Runaway Safeline, recalled one particularly memorable call that had him working with several agencies to help a young man and his pregnant girlfriend find housing. Floyd was able to help the young couple find a place to stay where they could be together, in separate rooms, to emotionally support one another through the challenging experience.
Floyd said this was particularly rewarding because he was able to get “a couple different agencies to expand their vision of what they could usually do given their usual policies to make the situation better for the two kids.”
The National Runaway Safeline doesn't tell callers what to do, although that's often what they want to know, said Floyd.
“What we’ll try to do is help (callers) identify options of how they can proceed in whatever the situation might be, and that includes helping them think through the consequences of what their actions might be," he said. "We know that running away from home can have some consequences if you’re not careful and even if you are careful.”
What it takes
An inherent desire to help people, empathy, patience and active listening are skills crucial to the job, according to Candland. It is also important volunteers know they are exposing themselves to trauma before experiencing any reward for their work.
“You’re taking these hotline calls from people who are going through very severe, unfortunate situations. Getting that secondary trauma is something that can come with the work,” she said. “We definitely try to get people who are prepared and who know what they’re getting into and how the work might impact them.”
Floyd said the hardest situations he’s had to deal with have been instances where an elderly person, through unfortunate circumstances, has become the guardian of a younger person who often doesn’t want to be in that situation.
“These are people who have never signed up, at the age of 75 or older, to take care of a young girl just coming into adulthood. They just don’t have the personal resources to deal with that circumstance, and that really is the hardest thing because when you’re talking to people, as I frequently do, down in the city, social services are very minimal," he said. "It’s hard to know what you can do, other than locate what resources are available and then provide that emotional support. That’s the hard stuff.”
A level head and creative problem-solving are essential to effectively handle the variety of situations a hotline volunteer can face.
“It requires people who are creative problem-solvers. You can’t freak out in stressful situations,” Vanderhoff said. “When that fight-or-flight kicks in, you’re not fleeing the scene.”
Raja said Crisis Text Line receives texts on a wide variety of situations, such as depression, anxiety, relationship issues or self-harm, so volunteers need to be able to keep an open mind and use empathy.
“We see things that people haven’t necessarily been able to share with others and are now turning to a service where they can talk about it without feeling that they are going to be judged for it,” she said.
Smigla said if people often come to you with their problems or concerns, then you are most likely a perfect volunteer for a hotline.
“Then you already have something just intrinsic to your being that would make you a perfect person for this,” she said. “The advice is to trust that part of yourself because other people already do.”
Candland said that sometimes for survivors of domestic violence, answering calls can reopen a volunteer's old wounds. For these individuals, the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition has different volunteer opportunities available if the hotline seems daunting.
“We really emphasize that taking care of oneself is imperative before you are really able to successfully help others going through this,” she said. “I think if people come in and have trauma still, we try to look into that and say, 'Are you ready? Do you want to maybe try another opportunity?'”
According to Candland and Vanderhoff, both of their hotline operations have volunteers from all walks of life, but most are college students studying social services.
“Definitely we have more college students, but those college students can be 18 to 24, and I also have college students that are older,” Vanderhoff said. “We have both male and female volunteers. We have a good, even spread. I have volunteers who are professionals, a nurse and one was a retired police officer.”
At 71 years old, Floyd said he is usually the oldest person in his group of volunteers by several decades. Floyd has been volunteering at the National Runaway Safeline on and off for 15 years and appreciates the exposure to a younger crowd.
“It’s just a different crowd of people that I wouldn’t meet otherwise,” he said. “Many of the volunteers are college students or even high school students, and, yes, there are a few other seniors, but not so many. So for me, that is a really integral part of the experience.”
He said his age has given him experience that he can use to help callers.
“I’ve never been in the situations that most of our callers are calling about, but I’ve had the benefit of seeing others in those circumstances,” Floyd said. “I think that in some cases, the age difference allows for a budding rapport, which is a little hard to do over the telephone but also really important to do.”
Floyd’s advice to older prospective volunteers is to give it a try, and the worst that can happen is you will find out you don’t like it and move on.
First call and training
For many volunteers, answering that first phone call is the hardest, but experience and training help them to catch on quickly.
Fasciano recalled nearly jumping out of her chair on her first call because the phone ringer volume was set so high.
“When it actually rang, I freaked out," she said.
Smigla said you can always tell who’s just beginning, as they come in clutching their notebooks for the first few months.
Fasciano said she feels her training, which took 32 hours and is augmented with continuing quarterly trainings, prepared her well. She said it covered a number of topics related to domestic violence through guest speakers, lectures, videos and group role-playing where the group practiced different call scenarios.
“You help enough people and then you realize that each call is going to be totally different. I can never predict what kind of call I’m going to get, how it’s going to go or how long it’s going to last, but you have enough resources that you think, 'OK, I can handle whatever these calls are,'" she said. "'I don't need to be nervous about it.'"
Smigla said she worried at first about the emotional toll of working at the hotline. She received some helpful advice from a friend who worked at the National Suicide Prevention Hotline about how to avoid taking those emotions home with you.
“He said, 'In the end you have to be responsible to your callers, but you don't have to be responsible for them,' she said. “And that is excellent. I keep that in my head because, with an anonymous hotline, you’ll never know the end of the story. But I come in with the frame of mind that I will do my best to help anyone who calls, and that’s what I can do.”
Candland said it’s OK for volunteers to feel emotions on the job.
“It’s OK to cry. It’s OK to be a human, because we are humans dealing with terrible situations. I do my best to let volunteers know it’s OK to reach out to me,” Candland said. “We don’t ever want to put anyone in a situation that could be harmful to their mental health.”