When You Call a Suicide Hotline and Things Go Poorly

For a long time now I’ve wanted to talk about the problematic side of crisis chat.  I sometimes see my co-volunteers badly mishandle things, and it feels dishonest pitching crisis chats as resource without acknowledging the problems.  I held back partly because I would be violating two different people’s privacy if I gave any examples (one of whom is protected by HIPAA), and partly out of fear that I would discourage someone who needed it from reaching out.  But what I realized is that an overly rosy picture gaslights people who have had bad experiences at a hotline.  A lot of our callers believe nothing will ever help, or everything bad that happens is their fault, or a just punishment for their moral failings.  If you tell them the hotline always helps, and they catch a bad call, it reinforces the feelings the feelings driving them to suicide to begin with.

So what you need to know is: if you call a suicide or crisis line and feel worse afterwords, it’s usually their fault, not yours.  Suicide hotline volunteers are human beings with their own set of strength and weaknesses.  Every one of them goes into their shift hoping to make a difference, but on any given day you might catch a trainee, or someone for whom your story is too familiar and triggers projection from their own life, or your story is not familiar enough and they can’t work through the cultural differences.  None of these are reflections of you.

That’s not the only reason people feel worse after calling, of course.  Often the call is the first acknowledgement of how bad things are, after months or even years of numbness. There’s no way to make that not hurt.  But if your call deviates significantly from Hollis Easter’s description of a suicide hotline call, that is a good sign something has gone wrong on the specialist’s end.

What can you do in this situation?  Hanging up is certainly an option, and not one to be discounted.  But if you have the reserves, I encourage you to tell the specialist what is going wrong, as specifically as possible (“No, that’s not what happened”, “No, that’s not how I feel”, “Yes, I’m having thoughts of suicide but I’m not going to act on them in the next 24 hours so can we please talk about my mom”*).  If it works, great.  If it doesn’t, you can leave knowing you tried, and you’ve practiced asserting a boundary.  It’s not what you called for, and you shouldn’t have to do it, but it can be a surprisingly satisfying second best.

Or maybe that won’t make you feel better at all.  That could happen too.  But if it does, I hope that this entry lets you know that it’s not your fault, and leaves open the possibility of trying again later.

*This is a balancing act.  Some callers are genuinely pills-in-the-hand suicidal and we take a fairly aggressive stance at talking them out of it.  A lot of other people are having suicidal thoughts with no intention to act on them, and we want to be a safe place for them to acknowledge those feelings as we talk about the actual problem.  If a particular call is ambiguous, we have to default to suicide intervention.  But if you can promise us you’re not going to kill yourself in the next 24 hours, or even just for the duration of the call, we can relax.

In fact, figuring out what to talk about in general is a tricky problem.  Some people need to talk about the patterns in their life.  Some need to talk about a specific incident.  Some need to talk about feelings without regard to external events.  Some need to be walked through breathing exercises so they can stop chasing their feelings in circles.  If you know which one of these you are, tell us, we are overjoyed to act on the information.