Stories From Suicide Hotline Operators That Highlight Just How Hard And Important Their Job Is. Wow.
Suicide hotline operators were asked: "What's the call that keeps you up at night?" These are some of the best answers.
1/18 Had one where a suicidal person sounded just like a high school friend, and the call dropped out.
2/18 This girl in her senior year in high school called and as soon as I answered the phone my stomach dropped. She was screaming and crying. I went through the general questions. She told me that she was being bullied online by her high school "friends" and they had turned their back on her. She hadn't told her parents. She was alone in the house and she said she was going to kill herself. My eyes were tearing up at this point and my stomach felt sick. I did not feel qualified. After talking with her for a little over an hour (we're supposed to keep calls at 20 min or less) I found out that she was the star soccer player, the valedictorian, and had been accepted into her top colleges (which her friends hadn't). I said do you think maybe these "friends" were just jealous? And she stopped crying and said yeah that might be it.
We talked for a while about all that she has going for her, and that she would soon be out of high school. And I'll never forget this. At the end she said "I'm so glad you of all people picked up. I feel like you really get me. I would have killed myself tonight if you hadn't answered." That was the 2nd time in my life that I ever felt proud of myself (the first was when I got my first paycheck). Not the kind of pride where you want to tell everyone, but the quiet kind where you just want to keep it to yourself. Like I couldn't stop smiling on my ride home. That call stuck with me.
3/18 Sometimes the saddest stories are the ones from the younger kids: 13 or 14 year old girls who are cutting along with having an eating disorder and they have no friends at school. They're sad because they're often locked in a system that won't or can't help them. My heart broke when a girl told me that her school's advisors/counsellors were assigned a ridiculous number of students per advisor and couldn't make time for her. Nor was she allowed to switch counsellors - she was stuck with the one she was assigned to for the rest of the year (and IIRC, the rest of high school). It said a lot about the state of education funding, school management, and the sanctity (or lack thereof) of teenagers' mental health.
4/18 I volunteered at a teen suicide hotline when I was 16. I had a friend that was really cute and she was passionate about helping people out in rough situations so I agreed to go. I brought along my best friend, as a wingman mostly, and we met at a small building with three or four phones. The girl was so happy that I came. We started talking the evening away and it turned into a fun night.
We got two or three calls our first hour. The first was from Mickey Mouse, the second was from Bart Simpson and the third was someone saying they were going to commit Suicide because of how hard their life was being so attractive. Joke after joke after joke. The number for the hotline was printed on the back of all the student ID's from grade 7-12. Not the most mature ages to deal with so it didn't surprise me.
We turned on a movie on a projector and all of us were just laughing and enjoying the night. I remember near the end of the evening, the phone rang and I answered it laughing. Expecting the same prank calls, I didn't think it would matter if I started out the call chuckling from a joke that was told while a seventh grader got the guts up to say that it was Jesus on the phone. But this was different, I could hear deep breaths. Instantly I felt chills run up my back and I asked if everything was okay. I didn't even have my damn script of what I was supposed to ask because I had taken it so lightheartedly. "I think I've made a mistake...." I heard on the phone. I scrambled to relate conversation as the room fell silent and our movie was paused. I asked what was going on and if they needed help. "I shouldn't have done this..."
I knew at this point something was wrong but just didn't know what to do. I was asking everything, what their name was, how they felt, everything I could think of but their breathing just continued into the phone. I then realized that I could send the cops to their address from the phone number they called in on since it was a landline. Then I heard a subtle crash. The phone had been dropped. The breathing slowed and stopped as well. I continued to try and talk but it was no use. Eventually we could hear police walk in the room and I came to learn that a 15 year old had slit his wrists. I don't know what if I could have done anything to save this kids life but I will never forget how I handled the situation.
5/18 The call that affected me most was a man dealing with some serious personal issues, and guilt that maybe wasn't so necessary, all things considered. I put things in another perspective for him and by the end of the call he was crying with joy rather than sorrow. No idea who it was and I pretty much guarantee I'll never meet him (wouldn't know who he was if I did), but I hope things have improved for him and he doesn't blame himself so much.
6/18 One call that had really bothered me at the time was when I was dealing with a clearly delusional person. For example, while assessing the risk, you need to ask a series of questions. How they planned to kill themselves. In this case, she wanted to shoot herself. And if she knew how to load it. She said yes. What she planned on loading it with... Sleeping pills. Now in the middle of the assessment I got another call. After 5 minutes went by, I had to switch back to the other person. And this would go on switching back and forth in 5 minute intervals. Now to the delusional person who just needed someone to talk to and feel like they were being listened to. 5 minute intervals wasn't that bad. But the other caller didn't feel the same way. I switched back to them and they screamed "YOU DONT CARE EITHER. I CALLED TO GET HELP AND YOU'RE NOT LISTENING!" click
At that point my heart sank. And being completely anonymous I knew I would never hear from them again. They shared information with me that was truly heart wrenching and was really trying to reach out, but I was by myself. I felt guilt for a long time. And ultimately got anxiety from volunteering there. The odd time I did feel like I helped someone was an amazing feeling. But I would not suggest anyone to do it. Honestly great experience though
7/18 I volunteered for 2 years while at university getting my BA. During my second year I stayed on campus for the holidays, flying home would be too expensive and I had a lot of work to do. So I volunteered some on my break - many people find the holidays the hardest time to cope with turbulent feelings of depression and such. I got a call from a girl that I knew, a girl who I had gotten to know through the theater dept. I've always been good with faces and voices, I have a good memory for that sort of thing. She on the other hand did not recognize my voice over the phone. Now from my training I knew I should switch operators but. . . She was in bad shape. She was on the edge and was talking a mile a minute. She had been battling depression for a few years, unbeknownst to me or any of her close friends in the dept. She had also failed a lot of classes that semester, the university was planning on dismissing her, and she had taken it really hard. She had stayed for the break and felt alone in our foreign college town, most of her close friends had gone home for break and she had been over medicating (pills + booze) to try and keep her "up" but it wasn't working.
She talked a lot for a while, about how she wasn't worth trying to help, then she got quieter. Then it felt like I was talking for a really long time trying to console her, then no response. She hadn't hung up, she had just simply left mid conversation. I suddenly felt panic, a ton of panic. I tried to get her back on the line to no avail. I grappled with my options, try and call her cell on my phone to check on her but risk her making the connection once she hears my voice, the exact same voice she had just spent about an hour with on the suicide hotline. Or the option I went with. I knew where she lived, it was actually quite close to me, so I sent an ambulance to her apt.
They found her in the kitchen covered in vomit. She had mixed high doses of her meds with a bottle of cognac. Her stomach was pumped, she spent 2 days in the hospital, her parents came and moved her back home. She had no idea it was me. She still has no idea that it was me.
I'm still not completely comfortable with the decisions I made and I stopped volunteering at the hotline shortly after I told my supervisor about the incident. Oh and I still check up on her via Facebook from time to time. She's doing alright, has what seems like a very stable and positive SO, is graduating in May, and has been interning at an institute that apparently specializes in the study and treatment of mental illness.
8/18 At the end of the day, the thing that sticks with me most is the kids that talked about the stigma of mental illness. You know how many kids in North America live with a serious mental illness that their parents deny because the parents think their children should just "suck it up" or "feel better"? Too many. This was shockingly common. I couldn't believe how many teenagers I talked to had parents who flat out denied that depression was a real thing. This was common to whole families, or single parents (though in my personal experience, if it was one parent in particular that allegedly held this viewpoint, it was almost always the mother). Or even parents who acknowledged that their child had a problem but that counselling wasn't the solution and that they wouldn't pay for treatment. Heartbreaking stuff.
9/18 A kid in her early teens called and had a rope around her neck. She kept tugging on it and choking and asking me what I thought death was like. She said she thought it was like a big black hole. I asked her what if she was wrong and it was nothing. She gave me the name of a shop she lived near, and after some googling we found it. Police visited and she was okay.
10/18 I worked an overnight shift and got a call from an older woman who had already taken a bunch of pills but didn't want to be alone when she died through out our call I could tell she was starting to fade but I was able to piece together enough information to find out where she was EMS was able to get there in time and save her.
6 months went by and I got a call from the same woman (it is by coincidence that she connected with me and not another volunteer) she didn't know it was me either. She told me her story and said that the person she talked to saved her life and she had gone to therapy and was doing much better. It made my year and it made all the rough nights worth it.
11/18 This one girl would call a few times a week. At first she wouldn't talk to any of us. She would call everyday and just not say anything. So we would sit there in silence for 20 minutes and say "When you're ready, we're here for you." And then we would have to say goodbye at the 20 minute mark. At first, she did that same thing with me. But, over time, she started saying a few words. It was the cutest thing. I would say "Have you ever heard of this show?" and she would wait for a second or two and then say, "You watch that? That's a really dumb show." in a playful tone of voice. Over time, she opened up more and more until she was talking more than me.
She was precious. She was in high school. Her only friend wasn't really a friend. This girl who called - I'll call her Sam - cut herself regularly and the other friend knew and would poke fun at her for it. I'm not kidding. One time she called when the other friend was in the room and I heard her making fun of Sam for calling the suicide line. But every time she called I would just talk with her about her favorite music, favorite tv shows, whether the cyberbullying was getting better, was she still cutting, etc. And she started calling and asking for me because she said I was different. She said that she felt like I actually cared. She was being bullied online as well, but she would just laugh and giggle the whole time we were on the phone. She would ask when I was coming in next, etc. She was really cool. I really felt like she was a friend. But it breaks my heart because I moved away unexpectedly without getting a chance to tell her and I still wonder if she calls asking for me.
12/18 I was talking to a woman in hysterics - she was at home, alone, and packing all of her things. Her SO was going to be home within a few hours, and if she was still there when he arrived... Well, he was very abusive. He had just lashed out at her that morning, and I could hear that her voice was thick (he had punched her in the face/jaw, so I assume the crying as well as the swelling added to that). She kept saying, "please, please, this is my last option, I've called everyone else and no one helps, no one listens". In the line's database, we have a list of all the women's shelters within the state, so I put her zip code in and find her a few.
Then came the tricky part; I kept going to make a conference call with a good shelter, but a dial tone would meet me each time. I was getting panicked, because you can't speak with the caller while you're dialling and calling the other line. Each time the call failed to connect, she would come back on the line, crying, frantically trying to pack her things up. She was in pieces. I would say things like, "you will get the help you need, I'm currently calling shelters for you," and asking her questions about what happened, as well as asking her to take a moment to breathe. It was a race; I was trying to dial as quickly as possible so that she wouldn't be alone. I felt terrible that she had to sit there and justwait for someone to help her out of hell. My fellow counsellors (usually one or two others on during the shift, sometimes three) were occupied with their own calls. I kept trying again, trying new methods of doing a conference call (we have a binder with directions) but it just wasn't working. At one point, I returned to the line with the woman, and started to say something, but the line was dead. I still have no idea whether I pressed the wrong button or if her SO came home. I waited for a long time and put up a notice for other counsellors to pay attention to calls from her, but she never called back.
My supervisor said that it was likely she hung up. Turns out that the conference call wasn't working because I didn't include a "+1" in the phone numbers. That part is now included in the binder's directions, and they mention it whenever there are training sessions for incoming counsellors. I was seventeen at the time (this was within the last few years) and didn't have a lot of experience with landline phones. I think about her all the time.
13/18 A girl called in shortly after her brother's funeral. He had committed suicide. Prior to his suicide, he had told his sister that he was miserable at his job, and wanted to go back to school in another field, one that the sister was in. She didn't encourage him, and said that her field was incredibly difficult, "the higher-ups look at you with scorn. They're just as petty and likely to cut you down as corporate people. They'll do anything to stop your progress". No one in the family knew how depressed he was. Not even the sister - the phone call had signs, sure, but he seemed bummed out, not suicidal. That phone call happened early in the week. The brother and sister were supposed to meet up later, but when she arrived at his apartment, he wouldn't answer the door. His car was there. The police had to break down the door.
She felt like it was her fault, and trying make her feel like it wasn't just... wasn't the way to go. So I had to ask her, "Is it your fault? Did you directly cause this?" She said yes, because she didn't support him. "Okay. Do you feel like you listened to him enough?" We talked about how she felt like she should have known; she knew him best out of her family. We talked about the shame of what other people must think of her and her family. The hurt, that her family also blamed her for not letting the family know what he had said. (He'd had a job interview that morning.) I explained the stages of grief. Denial, anger, depression, etc, and how she was probably in the anger stage, and how to work through that for the next few months. How there would be so many questions she would have, that would likely go unanswered. There was a lot of emphasis on the letter he left. She was still upset by the end of the call, of course, but she felt better.
I was the first person to say, yeah, maybe it is your fault. I don't believe it was, which was difficult. I mean, how can you tell a grieving person that they're to blame? She cared so much for her brother, and I don't think the logic she shared, the idea that maybe going back to school wasn't the best plan, that he should think on it a bit more, caused him to commit suicide. I think there may have been a gap in communication, and that he felt hopeless. Perhaps he thought that no matter what career he was in, he would be surrounded by bitter, cruel people.
Her family seemed to be religious, and while she herself wasn't devout, talking about seeing him after death and talking about prayer helped her as well. That was another difficult aspect; I've had bad experiences with church, but when you're on the line with someone who's hurting (or when you're with anyone who's hurting) relating to them with faith always helps. The call lasted at least an hour and a half, maybe two hours. I cried for a long time after I hung up, my supervisor and another counsellor/friend sat with me for a while. I got my own kind of counselling session. It's hard to imagine being blamed/blaming yourself for your brother's death, it's hard to be complicit (that word has the best connotation I can think of right now) in blaming someone for another's suffering and death.
I left the line a few months after that, both due to a lack of time and because that last call just hurt too much.
14/18 I had a caller once who'd taken a deliberate overdose and was losing lucidity. We'd been talking for a couple of hours by this point, and I knew a whole lot about her and her life: I even knew vaguely what neighbourhood of what (nearby) town she lived in. At one point, after murmuring a lot about being sleepy, she stopped responding, and all I could hear was the noise of an ice cream van stopped somewhere on the street near her house and some kids excitedly running to get ice creams.
Let me step back for a moment and tell you about me: I'd never before had difficulty rationalizing my role on the helpline: I wasn't there to prevent suicide - not directly, at least. My role was to be there and provide emotional support. You can't tell somebody not to kill themselves... well you can, but they can get that fromanybody, and if they have then it hasn't helped them so far. But what you can do is to be with them, and show them support, and help them evaluate their choices, and let them not have to be alone, and maybe, just maybe, that's enough to give somebody who's suicidal the strength to go on for a little bit longer. And that can make a huge difference - sometimes all the difference. Surviving a day at a time and calling a helpline several times in that day can help people get by, and then maybe find a way to start surviving a few days at a time, or a week at a time. I've supported people who've recovered from suicide attempts and subsequently feeling plagued with suicidal thoughts and feelings, and it's a long hard battle: learning to survive when you're deeply suicidal is really hard. But it can be done, and the way to help somebody do it isn't to stop them from committing suicide, because all that does is makes them not call you next time. The way to help them is to accept them, and to support them, and to hope beyond hope that they find their own way to survive. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don't: I've had callers who I've later heard that they'd died. But this call was the first time that I'd had a caller in imminent danger of dying right there on the other end of the phone.
And I became briefly irrational, and I'm not entirely proud of it: I started trying to work out how it might be possible to work out where she was and get help to her, even though she'd specifically rejected my offer of this earlier in the call. I knew where she lived down to a cluster of perhaps 60 houses; how many of those must have an ice cream van outside them right now? My mind raced. It was completely irrational (there's no way that I could have narrowed it down; I was clutching at straws) and wrong (the policy of that helpline was, and I fully stand by this, that we don't send help to anybody without their permission unless the law dictates otherwise: and the law's quite well-worded on this matter, in my country).
My caller was completely silent - I didn't even hear her breathing - for seven minutes and fifteen seconds, and you know already that every one ticked by like a bomb going off. Then she came to, and said that she was feeling unwell and was going to call an ambulance, and then she hung up. And that was the last time I ever heard from or of her.
In my decade+ of helpline work I've spoken to a lot of people and about a lot of things. Some of them have been suicidal and some of them haven't. But that moment in which I momentarily lost my rationality will stick with me forever.
15/18 It doesn't really keep me up at night, but the most disturbing thing that happened to me was that we would get this one guy who called a lot. He seemed pretty lonely, but tried to keep a positive attitude. One day he stops calling. Several more days go by without a call which is unusual for him. Turns out he snapped and almost successfully murdered someone. It wasn't pre-meditated or anything and he didn't know the person either. He just, snapped.
16/18 The one that disturbed/stuck with me the most was a guy who was a mixture of suicidal and homicidal. He told me in detail his entire plan to kill his sister, shoot up the kids in the elementary school across the street, and then force his mother to shoot him in the chest. Needless to say we had to get the cops involved.
17/18 Probably the girl who took a whole bottle of Tylenol. Got an ambulance for her, but depending on how long it's been, acetaminophen OD is fatal.
18/18 I volunteered for Samaritans in UK for a few years and took quite a range of calls. The thing that sticks with me the most is how some people never even stood a chance, and I often wonder what life would be like if that happened to me. One lady stand out a lot, let's call her Rachel. Rachel had gotten all the help she could from doctors, psychiatrists, medication, therapy, everything she could, but it didn't work. She decided that she wanted to be dead and I 100% supported her decision. When talking about suicide some people say there's always a reason to keep going, or that things can better. But that's not always the case; some people unfortunately had their fate decided way before they ever had the chance to make their own decisions, from biological factors to abuse as a child. Rachel wanted to die but she couldn't even muster the energy required to walk to the local shop and buy the paracetamol required to kill herself. She would spend months in bed, tortured every second by her illness, but no one would allow her to end her suffering. When I talked to her she just found me to be a breath of fresh air because I didn't tell her not to do it. She could really share her true thoughts and feelings with me, rather than holding back as she had done with all of her friends, family and medical professionals.
Rachel finally managed to kill herself over a 5 hour phone call I spent with her and I'm honestly glad about it. That poor lady had suffered her entire life and she could finally end her pain. I think about Rachel a lot and about how some people were born without an opportunity to ever be a normal person. It makes me sad that people have to endure this and that mental illness isn't taken more seriously. Her life was truly tragic but I'm so glad that I could have been there with her until the end.
Those of us who live in New York live this truth on a daily basis.
Sometimes, you just meet a person who isn't quite all there. It's hard to tell at first, but then you talk with them for a little while and it just becomes abundantly clear if they're two eggs short of an omelette.
The stories of how you find out are so interesting. But yet, they teach us to look for clues when we interact with others.