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IamA Suicide Hotline Operator AMA!

Oct 28th 2014 by suicidalballoon • 36 Questions • 798 Points

Hey!

I've been working on a national suicide hotline for almost two years now. I've had many interesting experiences talking with people. I've talked to someone who was holding a gun to their head, to someone who was slipping into an overdose, to many different kinds of sex callers, to lots of people who were lonely and just wanted to be heard. I love what I do and have a lot I could say about it.

I unfortunately can't say much about who I am or where I work in order to maintain confidentiality. I can say that I and my coworkers are all disgruntled because we are not respected by the people we work for, though! I have a lot to say about this as well.

So go ahead... ask me anything!

EDIT: Thanks for all the replies! It's been fun sharing my thoughts and experiences. I'm off to bed for the night (This is my first night off in a long time so I'm going to catch up on missed sleep, oh yeah). I just wanna say that I don't intend for this thread to be a counseling session. If you or someone you know is feeling suicidal then I encourage you to call a hotline. Here's a Google search just for you: https://www.google.com/#q=suicide+hotlines

Q:

How did you get into this line of work?

A:

I was having cam sex with someone online. Their humanity leaked through via guilt about having had cam sex. I talked with them and was able to get through to them. They were crying and said I had helped them so much and that I had given them the best advice anyone had ever given them. I hadn't ever felt so good about having done something. I then started pursing this line of work. It feels amazing knowing you've helped someone feel better when they're in a dark place.


Q:

What do you tell someone who is suicidal with the mind set that: "in the end, there is no point to anything any way"?

A:

That's really tough. Those are usually the mindsets of people who are committed to dying soon. One person was calling before they were going to jump off a bridge. They had tried slitting their wrists before calling but failed because it hurt too much. The night before they had tried overdosing on pills and booze but was saved by a sibling. I asked them how they felt knowing their sibling had saved them and they said: "Angry because I wanted to die." They had another sibling they were close to and so I used the guilt tactic of "How would they feel if you killed yourself?" and they said, after a pause: "Sad. But they would get over it eventually." Which is technically true.

So in answer to your question: I try to explore existential ruts by finding just one thing the caller can look forward to, even if it's taking a bath or listening to music or going for a walk. Questions of meaning and purpose are super deep and I do go deep with those who are willing to go there (I studied philosophy in college, hehe) but in the end I realize I can't erase someone's existential doubt--I can only distract them from it temporarily.


Q:

Do you get a lot of prank calls?

A:

Yes! I get a few a week. Pranksters are almost always young boys in groups. I can tell that it's a prank within a few seconds usually because the tone is off (and the almost inevitable snickering in the background is another fucking giveaway). I actually really enjoy dealing with pranksters because it challenges me to be assertive--something I'm not usually in my everyday life (I'm a shy and delicate flower most of the time). They usually hang up when I mention that it's illegal to prank call a suicide hotline. If they don't then I read their phone number to them (it almost always shows up unless it's an internet number) and ask if this is the number I should give the police. Haha one time I did this and a background voice screamed: "Hang up!!!" I cackled.


Q:

Do your colleagues look at you weird when you crack up on the phone while supposedly talking to a suicidal person? Or do they get it straight away?

A:

Haha! We laugh about calls all the time, often while on a call. I absolutely love every person I work with, they're all amazing. One of my coworkers is great at reflecting back the ridiculous things callers say. Once he said, while on a call: "So you're thinking of killing yourself by throwing yourself down the stairs...?" The rest of us looked over and snickered at such an ineffective means for suicide. We all have pretty dark senses of humor.


Q:

It makes me happy that you find these calls entertaining. As a bored kid of about 9yo in a mind numbingly small town, my cousin and I once pranked the kids helpline number from a payphone because it was a free number. For some reason we didn't really expect anyone to answer so when they did and asked what was wrong we fell to the incredibly original kid answer of having unstoppable farting problems. My cousin was in the background making emphatic fart noises the whole time. We thought they would know immediately that it was a prank but the person on the phone acted so kind and professional, it put us totally off guard. (I'm absolutely certain they knew obviously). It's kinda funny now, but I carried around the weirdest kid guilt about that phone call for years.

A:

I used to get offended by pranks because I thought they implied that the callers must think I'm stupid or something. Now I really don't mind at all and realize that these kids are trying to have fun. I have fun too! My fun is letting them know that what they're doing is illegal and that we could find who they are.

I just remembered one really crazy prank: a kid with a very convincing Russian accent kept calling the whole shift. He said that he had killed a gay person, asked if I was gay, told me he was gonna kill me too. I laughed it off because I knew he'd never be able to find me. His accent and ability to maintain character was remarkable, though. Usually pranksters get flustered when you question them about specifics. This one didn't. One counselor asked what part of Russia he was from and he said, without missing a beat: "I hit my head when falling on the ice and can't remember." A few minutes later he suddenly remembered and gave the name of some Russian town. My supervisor didn't find any of it funny though--he, in fact, had us call the police because death threats are serious. We ended up finding the kid: he was in his parent's basement. He fessed up, apologized, and took it as a learning lesson. I also bet he got in extreme trouble from his parents.


Q:

I don't really understand the motivations of your employer. Suicide hotlines aren't exactly a cash cow. You say they want to expand, and aren't compassionate towards their employees. Non-profits are normally staffed with compassionate people, so I don't really understand what drives the politics. Can you expand on this at all? Where are they spending the money that should go towards providing benefits to employees?

A:

It's an awful situation. The executives who run the organization are the ones who make the decisions about where to put money. One of these people is apparently so awful that three or four of their assistants have quit. Many other people in the organization have left over the past few years for similar reasons--not feeling comfortable with how things are done. The cash-cow aspect comes from the huge amount of money donated to the organization by the public. They are able to set aside paltry amounts of the budget for actual life-saving. I agree that many of the people staffed here are compassionate, good people; it's just those at the top who fuck everything up.

Here's probably the best example I can give of what I mean: there used to be a portion of the budget reserved for housing youth during a yearly retreat. This money is no longer in the budget and has instead been used to house executives during a yearly meeting. This demonstrates that securing the allegiance of the wealthy is more important to the organization than supporting underpriveleged youth.


Q:

That's too bad. Once you've left, I'd encourage you to speak up to the public. Document the bad behavior. The only way change comes about is if people are willing to speak out.

A:

Thank you for the support. I do intend to go public with this stuff as soon as I'm let go. I have means to spread this message far and wide, as do many of my other disgruntled coworkers. Stay tuned!


Q:

Are you planning start your own charity before exposing their hostile work practices or hoping that your exposure will create reform?

A:

I would really love to! My coworkers and I have talked about it. The problem is that we're all poor and don't have means to start such a thing.

I'm really curious about what might happen after we/I expose them. I don't think they realize what they've gotten themselves into. One aspect of neglecting a person's individuality is forgetting that they have a voice. I have access to people with lots of connections in the area I work, as do many others I work with (e.g., one has a radio show). This probably isn't going to end well for the organization I work for. I'm hoping that some kind of reform happens but honestly things are so fucked up that I don't even know how or where it would begin. We shall see what happens though!


Q:

Did you ever have a caller who you knew you couldn't save? Also thanks for doing the AMA!

A:

Yeah, unfortunately. Someone I once spoke to truly had nothing to live for and I unfortunately agreed with why they came to that conclusion. They had multiple mental illnesses (schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, PTSD from being raped numerous times), were homeless, unemployed, in chronic pain, enjoyed nothing... I asked them about the last time they had laughed and they said it was a few years ago. We ended up sending the cops after this person because they were going to kill themselves that night. They hung up before the cops could get there.


Q:

Do you still do cam sex?

A:

Haha! Depends on who's online ;)


Q:

I think everyone is assuming /u/suicidalballoon is a girl. Maybe she's a dude?

A:

Ooh! Gender! I think it's interesting that many have assumed I am female. I imagine this is largely because emotion-related work is often assumed to be done by females due to the gender stereotype of "women are emotional".

I am male. This doesn't mean I'm a man, though, because gender (i.e., man, woman) is different from sex (i.e., male, female). That said, though, I wouldn't say I'm a woman, either. I am just myself. Which means: I accept whatever pronouns people want to use for me (i.e., he, she, they). He is what I get most often because I'm male (even bearded and hairy-chested), she actually feels best because I value femininity more than masculinity, but they is most accurate given that I don't identify with gender.


Q:

I called the hotline one time and the person on the other end just simply repeated what I said in the form of a question. It would be like

Me: I'm so distraught and I want to harm myself because of reasons Operator: So I'm hearing that you want to harm yourself due to reasons and you feel distraught?

SO not helpful! Is that normal in the training?

A:

Yeah that sounds like a robotic way of applying the "reflect what you hear" principle often used in counseling. Every person is different in how they communicate, especially counselors. It sounds like this person may be methodically applying what they've learned instead of allowing their human capacities to guide them. I'm sorry you had this experience, not everyone you talk to would be like that (I'm not!)


Q:

That's good to know. I was calling after a particularly awful fight with an SO and I just needed some outside perspective on the argument. Is it common or even OK to give advice or opinions on relationships?

A:

It's very common for people to vent about relationships. The response you get will vary depending on who you talk to. Some will refer you to a therapist because the line isn't for relationship advice, others will find out if you have friends to talk to and refer you to them, others will give you some kind of advice. I personally suck at relationships so I'm often just as lost as the callers are so I thus explore social support and encourage the caller to seek it regarding the situation.


Q:

Talking to people on the phone, you can't see their face, how much harder does this make it it to talk to them and connect on a personal level to try and understand what they are going through and help them?

A:

It actually makes it a lot easier because I'm able to understand what they're saying more objectively. All I get is sound from the caller. If I got visuals it would be harder for me to stick with them because of all the information we convey nonverbally. I've learned that it's really easy to empathize and show to someone that you know what they mean if you practice active listening and reflection of what you're hearing. I imagine crisis counseling would be much, much more difficult if it happened in person.


Q:

In addition, do you work in a call centre or do you have separate offices? I'd imagine it'd be difficult to take a call in an open plan workplace. Is it?

A:

We work in a call center. It's a quiet place most of the time. It's on the outskirts of the main office due to both privacy and because we are the red-headed step children of the organization.


Q:

What was the most stressful call you had, and how did the conflict end?

A:

There's a repeat caller who fucks with us every time. They are truly sinister and manipulative. I think they call in order to feel powerful. They present as high risk, meaning they claim to want to kill themselves and have the means. I cried after the first time I talked with them. When they talked to me they wanted to know how much of a drug they had to take in order to overdose. This was the only kind of help they would accept. They kept fucking with me because I didn't know any better and didn't set boundaries. Eventually they told me they were going to get a cup to dissolve the pills. I frantically tried to get them to not do it. They did anyway: went away for a few seconds, returned, placed a glass on a table, poured liquid into the glass, then stirred. I heard all this happening as I began to panic. They dragged this on for a long time before finally saying: "Actually, I changed my mind. I don't want to kill myself with you on the phone." So then the even more fucked up part: they claimed that they couldn't hang up on me because their phone wasn't working so they told me I had to hang up on them. This was a total power play because they know we don't hang up on people who are at risk like that. They kept to it though. I was so incredibly upset. Eventually my boss told me who it was and that they always do this shit. I was relieved and eventually ended the call. I cried afterward not only from the trauma but also from knowing that someone so sinister actually exists.


Q:

Out of all your calls, which one has been your favorite or meant the most to you?

Thanks! And did I say thanks again? Thanks.

A:

A call that stands out in my mind comes from a kid who was relocated to live somewhere in the South with distant relatives and lost all of their support in doing so. They were relocated in the first place because the distant relatives worked with the church and so the rest of the family thought they'd be able to cure the youth of their non-heterosexuality. They were genderqueer and thus presented in masculine ways some days and feminine ways other days. They went to their first day of school presenting as a boy, the next day presenting as a girl. They were bullied constantly by both their peers and by people in the community. They had one friend, though. This friend supported them. One day they went to the friend and told them about how badly they had been treated. The friend responded by invalidating them, saying that others had it worse so they shouldn't complain. The caller said they got really upset at this and got into an argument. It apparently was a truly awful argument because the caller's friend ended up killing themselves because of it. In their suicide note they blamed the caller for it. This reinforced the caller's bullying because now everyone blamed them for the kid's suicide. Anyway, a super heavy story that really hit me. I connected super well with the caller. At the end of the call I reminded them that they could always call us back if they were feeling suicidal. They then asked: "If I called back could I talk to you again?" I melted and said that that probably wouldn't happen because lots of people answer calls. They responded: "Oh. Well I just feel a friend in you." I was so moved. I wondered if I was the first person that felt like a friend since the one that killed themselves. I felt so honored. I remember after the call ended I felt this overwhelmingly beautiful sense of having found my calling. My vision even changed as everything around me became more vibrant. I remember sitting in my car crying tears of sorrow and joy: sorrow knowing someone had gone through so much, joy knowing I had connected with them and given them hope. This person never ended up calling back. I'm glad. I don't want to have to talk with them again.


Q:

Please explain why you are disgruntled? It's not like you have quotas do you?

A:

I and the rest of my coworkers are all extremely upset with where we work. We are not valued as people and are mismanaged by people who are either incompetent or malicious. We feel we have no support except for one another. They offer us no psychological support and are unwilling to do so. They keep us part-time so they don't have to pay us benefits. One of my coworkers (who recently resigned) was retaliated against when they questioned the allocation of money within the organization at a budget meeting. I am actually going to be losing my job soon as collateral damage from this retaliation. The organization, of course, doesn't say they've retaliated--they say they are making improvements to the efficiency of the services they offer. We and everyone else who isn't an executive knows that this is bullshit, though. I work for an awful organization that is seen from the outside as a great place full of people who save lives. This couldn't be farther from the truth--the people who run the organization are much more focused on growth and productivity than they are interested in helping. I am truly devastated by how I and the people I work with have been treated. The only reason I've stuck around is because of how much I love what I do.


Q:

That fucking sucks. Thanks for doing your part though. I was a depressed kid and the thought had crossed my mine when I was younger, and I got help for it. The fact that you deal with people lost in this world, on a daily basis, must take a toll on you mentally and it is bullshit they don't provide you with a means of dealing with that. I could see that possibly ending in tragedy. Hopefully this isn't the case at other organizations, but remember you actually have saved a life and that fact is priceless, regardless of the numbers your organization puts on it. You're an awesome person solely based on what you do, so to that I say good shit.

A:

Thank you :)


Q:

Do you ever sic the police on your callers, just to save them from themselves?

A:

We send the police if the caller is planning on killing themselves the same night and has the means. These are called rescue calls and they are really stressful.


Q:

Can you give a play by play of how this kind of call might go? I would think this would be less stressful than trying to convince someone over the phone, knowing actual in-person backup is on their way.

A:

Sure! It's a really involved process:

First figure out the caller's risk level by asking them about if they're thinking of killing themselves, if they have means, if they have a timeframe. If yes, has means, timeframe is tonight then it's a rescue.

Next: message a co-counselor about it (we're all on instant messenger with each other like the old days of AIM). They'll listen in to give more support. They will also do the next big step: calling the clinician. The clinician is always available but is often asleep if we call in the middle of the night. The poor person will be like, "...hello?" because they are probably in bed. They approve the rescue (maybe). They ask questions about the caller and their means, previous attempts, etc. If they give the go-ahead (they usually do because we only call when we feel it's a rescue and are good with knowing if it will be approved) then we move to the next step.

Next, after approval: find caller's location. This is the most stressful part because their location isn't always easy to find. We can trace their phone number but that isn't reliable because someone may have a cell phone they bought in one town and then moved elsewhere. This is where creative questioning comes in. I like to ask the caller what they're seeing. One caller was sitting outside of their motel on some stairs. "Oh! What motel are you at?" They told me. "You said you're outside. What do you see?" "A gas station across the street." "Oh! What kind of gas station?" This is how we narrow down where they are. It's not always this easy though, especially if they say something like "I'm in my apartment" because that could be anywhere.

Next, after or while we're trying to find them: co-counselor calls police in caller's area. They can trace calls a little better than we can. Dispatchers aren't always very competent and will sometimes ask dumbass questions. One person wanted to know my caller's date of birth. I wasn't sure how to get that information until I came up with something: "Hey, are you interested in astrology?" "Yeah a little bit." "What's your sign?" "_". "Oh cool, I'm a __. Wanna get a drink sometime? So when is your birthday?" That's how I got it, even though this person's date of birth is irrelevant to the fact that they want to die right now. The co-counselor deals with talking to the police as they dispatch someone.

Next: waiting for the police to get there. This can take a while depending on how well we were able to find their location. I once heard the police in the background; other times the police were near but couldn't find the caller and the caller really wanted to hang up. This is where big stress comes in: knowing they haven't been found but are either slipping away (i.e., overdose) or want to go jump off the bridge now.

Finally: police either get them or the caller hangs up. If they hang up we can call them back if the clinician approves it.

Last step: relax, take a break, go for a walk. Rescues cost a lot of energy for us, especially if they don't end with the police getting them.


Q:

As someone who suffers from depression and anxiety myself, a lot of the pertinent ones have been asked (that I could see. The existential "no point to anything" was the one I was gonna do).

But... being morbid, have you have had a call end and later realise that person couldn't be helped? How did that affect you?

A:

I often feel like many of the people who call are beyond the kind of help we can give them. This is definitely a sad thing to realize. However, I don't feel responsible for either their predicament or their improvement because I realize that a person needs to be motivated within themselves to get better and that I cannot give that to them. This is how I'm able to not be affected by those who seem beyond help.


Q:

In one answer you said this:

Many people call and are help-rejecting because they have really high expectations about what we might be able to do to help them. They shoot down every suggestion and are in general defensive about every attempt we make to get through to them.

Could you tell me some things that you can do? Is there anything besides trying to talk them out of it?

A:

My approach to help-rejecting people is to have them think about what kind of help they need. I usually say something like, "I'm here to help you in any way I can but I'm just not sure how. So tell me: what can I do to help you?"

Another good question to ask people in general: "What would it take for you to start feeling better?" This way it's up to them to figure out what they want.


Q:

Have you ever had to get a drink after a rough day?

A:

I've never gotten a drink after work because I get off at 5am and want to go straight to bed, haha. I used to work mornings (5am-11am) and would take myself out to lunch to cope... but mornings were truly awful for me, I couldn't do them.

While I've never gotten a drink after work I have definitely smoked lots of weed... hehe ;)


Q:

In your everyday life, do you sometimes help your friends and family with their problems ? Or do they come to you for any advice ?

A:

I've pretty much always been someone people come to for help and support. It's just how I am. I've always been super in tune with people and their feelings. This can be a gift and a curse--a gift when I'm helping someone, a curse when I'm crippled by worry for someone.


Q:

How/what got you into this line of work? And do you need a degree in psychology or anything in order to do your occupation? Lastly, is the training rigorous to get in to your work?

A:

Read some of the other replies for information about how I got into this work.

I can't speak for all suicide hotlines but I can say that for the one I work on they don't require any formal education in psychology. One of the biggest aspects of the interview process is an exploration of self-care because they want to see that you know how to cope with stress since the job is definitely stressful.

The training where I work is about a 40 hour class. It's a lot of information. The real learning comes from practicing calls via role plays (see other comments about this)


Q:

Does religion ever play a part in what you say/hear (like talking a Christian out of it because it's considered a sin)?

A:

Religion is always a bit tricky to navigate. The most common religion-related concerns I get come from people (usually kids) who aren't heterosexual and hear from others that they are going to hell because of it. My approach to this is to distinguish what they believe about their religion and what they've been told to believe. It's usually productive because few people experience religion in a way that makes them feel like they're going to hell; what they instead experience is dissonance between what they've heard about god and what they feel from god.


Q:

What about someone like me? A constantly suicidal (not harmfully, however, I just like to question death) homosexual teen? Is it often "I want to kill myself because God hates me for being gay" or "I want to kill myself because everyone hates me for being gay, since god said it"?

A:

It usually goes like this: caller says they think they're going to hell for being gay/that god hates them/etc, I ask them what makes them think that, they say that that's what they hear from others, I ask them if they believe these people, they usually say no.


Q:

Are you trained to not get emotionally overwhelmed by callers, or did that come naturally? Or, is it encouraged/normal to get emotionally involved (i.e. crying) with the callers, as opposed to strictly professional unless asked to connect (like 911 dispatch).

A:

Emotional involvement can be tricky. I keep my emotions in boxes--as in, I don't become unemotional but I do confine the feelings both spatially and temporally so that when the call ends I close the box and don't open it again. Your question points to a general question about how best to counsel a person--as in, how should someone respond in order to best help someone? You'll get a different answer depending on who you ask. I tend to side with the humanists and allow myself to be honest in whatever I feel. I communicate most of my emotional responses with nonverbal "mmmm"s or "awwwww"s. I find that this is pretty helpful for both me and the callers because I can't control what I feel--all I can control is what I do with how I feel.


Q:

You're doing a great thing, just to let you know. Quick, possibly personal question, however. Does working for the hotline pay, or is it volunteer?

A:

Thank you :)

My position is paid but there are also volunteer opportunities.


Q:

How did you get into this line of work? Did you ever struggle with suicidal thoughts yourself?

A:

I got into this after helping something through a difficult time--I answer this question a bit earlier, see previous replies for it.

As for my own suicidal thoughts: yes, definitely. I was suicidal all throughout high school. I never thought I'd live past 20. My past experience with suicidal thoughts definitely contributed to my desire to help others who feel suicidal. And to be completely honest: I still think about it sometimes. It's a part of me. I have never gotten beyond the basic thought of doing it--as in, I've never thought about how or when I'd do it--but the thought still lives in me and comes back whenever I'm realllly upset. I accept this as just part of who I am.


Q:

At some point do you realize that someone is beyond help?

A:

It depends on how we define help. Sometimes help means getting someone to feel a little bit better. In this sense: yes definitely. Many people call and are help-rejecting because they have really high expectations about what we might be able to do to help them. They shoot down every suggestion and are in general defensive about every attempt we make to get through to them. I hate these kinds of calls. These people are beyond help because they've chosen to be.

Other times help means not getting someone to kill themselves. In this sense: rarely, because those who call choose to do so and thus some part of them still wants to live. It's this basic fact that allows these folks to be helped.


Q:

What's the longest you've been on the phone with someone at work?

A:

I'm usually pretty good at keeping my calls to time limits (yes, we have time limits we're supposed to work within depending on the caller's risk level). I've gotten better at this as I've worked for longer. That said, though, my longest was probably around an hour with a caller who was planning on dying that same night. Whenever we talk to a caller who is planning on dying soon and has the means then we can talk with them for as long as we feel we need to in order to either get them to be safe or for the cops to get there.

I've seen other call reports that have been up to two hours, though. Must have been a draining experience.


Q:

What is the training like? Has anyone been fired, and if so for what?

A:

We're trained for around 40 hours on how to effectively listen and communicate. We're also trained on how to address specific themes that come up a lot. It's a pretty draining 40 hours. We learn the most from role plays in which the trainee will pretend to be a counselor while someone who works on the lines plays the role of a caller. We treat it like a real call and then afterward give them feedback on how they did.

Some people don't make it... but it's usually because they're either triggered by the content of the training (i.e., get really shaken up and don't recover) or are defensive about improving. These people are pretty few and far between because the selection process is pretty thorough.


Q:

Have you ever been on a call and thought to yourself something along the lines of "just do it already"?

A:

Ehh no not really. I'd only have that kind of response toward people who annoy me... but the people who annoy me are almost never suicidal. People who are actually planning on killing themselves (i.e., have a means and timeframe) are people who don't annoy me because they usually are going through some fucked up things and so my compassion guides me through helping them.

To elaborate on those who annoy me: people who prank call the line, sex callers, repeat callers who think they have personal relationships with us.


Q:

How do you not break down when people are sharing their stories with you?And also what would you tell a suicidal teen?

A:

I conceptualize a lot of what I do in terms of an idea of "emotional boxes". I keep all the emotions I have with a caller in an emotional box--as in, I keep everything contained and don't think of what I'm feeling in a long-term sense. It's kind of hard to explain. It's not that I dehumanize the caller... it's more like I approach them like puzzles. Hearing about their story is just one part of the puzzle. I recognize and feel basic components of their story but don't take it to heart. Very few calls linger with me nowadays. I suppose what I'm trying to say is that I don't break down when talking to callers because I practice controlled empathy.

I'd need to know more about what was making the teen feel suicidal. Usually with teens I focus more on the future (e.g., college or career plans) so they can realize that there's a lot more they can do with their life. I also add in normalization--the fact that it's totally OK to not have everything figured out when you're a teen and that you sometimes need to hurt in order to grow.