A welcome voice at the end of the line
A hesitant, warbled voice greets Teddy.
The speaker sounds elderly, and somewhat confused and frightened.
She laments the fact a good friend has gone out in poor weather, and says she fears for his safety.
Teddy focuses on the call, reassuring the caller that she’s being listened to.
The caller suddenly veers course and begins to talk about other people she has lost in the past.
The conversation continues for several minutes.
Teddy, with a steady voice, offers empathy, encouragement, and a few minutes later, begins to brainstorm with the caller. What are her options for the day?
The tension eases.
“Have a good day, okay?” the caller tells Teddy before hanging up.
It’s a regular caller, says Teddy, leaning back in a work chair at the Fraser Health Crisis Line, which is based in Surrey.
She’s called about once a week for each of the 15 months that Teddy has volunteered.
“A lot of our regular callers like to call in to let us know about their day.”
That’s not a problem – the crisis line is there to help.
“Here, people don’t have to fight to make you understand what they’re going through,” Teddy explains.
Callers often find that trying to express their feelings to others is tiring and frustrating – even overwhelming. Together, the callers and call-takers come up with possible options or next steps .
Although there’s no typical incoming call, volunteers have been trained to help in most crises – regardless of what the caller might think is a crisis.
It might be a chronic problem, such as a mental illness, or might be a spontaneous event, such as the loss of a pet or an unexpected medical diagnosis.
A sudden crisis might provoke a caller’s urge to relapse into a previous addiction.
Sometimes they call for a referral to another service in the area. Often, they are isolated and just want to talk.
“We’ve been told previously by other services that for some of those callers, the crisis line is the only other human voice they’ve heard all week,” says Fraser Health Crisis Line practice leader Jackie Yurick (photo).
“So in terms of their unbelievable isolation and aloneness, the crisis line is very important.”
Yurick, who joined the former Surrey Crisis Line as a volunteer in 1985, says the call-takers focus on empathy and reflective listening – communicating to the caller that they understand.
Volunteers are also trained in non-directive problem solving – “a nice, fancy term for exploring all the different possibilities and ideally evaluating the pros and cons for the options,” explains Yurick.
She adds that people often already know what they should be doing, but a crisis may have shut the ideas down.
They call the crisis line for affirmation.
Training for call-takers is modelled on apprenticeship, and includes classroom teaching, 12 hours in the phone room as observers and multi-taskers, and at least 12 more hours of practice as call-takers with mentors at their side, before moving on to regular call-taking.
“We teach the volunteers to identify what it is they’re hearing – to understand how it is to be the caller,” Yurick says.
Not all situations can be resolved, Yurick admits, but the callers at least get the sense that they’ve been listened to. By the end of the conversation there’s an action or safety plan – especially with higher-risk callers.
In situations where a caller might not be able to agree about what they’ll do to stay safe, the conversation may turn to who the crisis line might send to help (such as police or the Surrey RCMP’s mental health “Car 67”), or referrals can be made to other services (such as counsellors or transition houses).
Yurick says it may sound intimidating to potential volunteers that they will have to talk to suicidal callers, but “because those folks are reaching out, the calls aren’t nearly as difficult to manage as people would imagine.”
Yurick says the crisis line has a good working relationship with the Surrey RCMP. She also personally provides an hour of training in suicide call management to 911 dispatchers.
In 2010, Fraser Health Authority amalgamated the Share Crisis Line (Coquitlam), the Mission Crisis Line, and the former Surrey Crisis Line into one service under Fraser Health, located in Surrey and operated by Options Community Services.
The most dedicated volunteers come from as far away as Abbotsford. One volunteer has manned the phones on Saturday nights for nine years.
Volunteer trainee Elizabeth says the crisis line has improved her understanding of how to communicate with people.
Michelle, a volunteer and mentor for a year and a half, says the skills she’s learned will help her future law career, particularly in the area of helping the disadvantaged.
Volunteers work four hours a week, or eight hours bi-weekly. They’re allowed lots of schedule flexibility.
The crisis line currently has 129 volunteers and six staff. It takes 42 people at four hours a week to run one line of service, and there are five incoming crisis lines. More volunteers are always needed.
Covering the entire Fraser Health region has meant more incoming calls – now about 36,000 per year.
The number of calls to the Surrey office has also increased since the service recently became part of the Crisis Line Association of B.C.’s 1-800-SUICIDE line and 310Mental Health Support Line (310-6789 – no area code needed). The province-wide network assures callers don’t get busy signals.
Imminent-risk suicide calls are rare.
“It’s not the norm, but we do get calls from people who are very close to acting on their suicidal feelings,” says Yurick. “It’s good that they’re phoning us rather than acting.”
Another call comes in to Teddy’s phone, and a blinking light indicates it’s from the provincial suicide hotline.
As Teddy listens in, the caller talks about her neighbours, her declining health, and general malaise.
“I start to feel lost, scared,” she says.
Again, Teddy and the caller discuss options that the caller has talked about: Food, friends, rest…
“I feel so much better trying to explain this,” the caller says at one point.
The caller says she wants to give back for the care she’s received from her friends, and there’s soon a brighter tone in her voice.
“Thank you so much for listening,” the caller says before hanging up.
“We’re here to be supportive, we’re not here to be superheroes,” says Teddy. “We’re here to help callers empower themselves, to be their own heroes.”
• The Fraser Health Crisis Line can be reached 24 hours a day at 604-951-8855 or toll-free 1-877-820-7444.
• The Fraser Health Crisis Line is recruiting volunteers. No previous experience is needed as extensive training and ongoing support is provided. If you are interested in learning more about this challenging and rewarding opportunity, visit www.options.bc.ca and follow the link for the crisis line. The next training session starts soon.