Recently, we had the pleasure of interviewing Anna, a 17-year old student attending an all-girls high school in the St. Louis area, about her intriguing work on a teen suicide hotline. Her responses to our questions provide valuable insight into the world of teens and an “insider’s” view of crisis hotline response work. Consider sharing this with your students; it’s moving, and it may help someone in need understand that resources like the hotline Anna volunteers with are there to help. America needs more people like Anna, and we are grateful for the help that Anna is providing to troubled teens in the St. Louis area. Way to go, Anna!
CBH: Why did you make the decision to become a teen suicide hotline volunteer?
Anna: I decided to become a volunteer because I wanted to do something to help other people. Also, I have had friends who have dealt with depression, and I want to be able to help people deal with that. I saw posters around school and decided to apply. Also, I am considering studying psychology in college, and I thought that this might be a good test run to see if it is something that I am interested in.
CBH: How long have you been doing it and what type of training did you go through?
Anna: I have been a volunteer for a little over a year. I attended training sessions two times a week for three weeks. We learned about the issues that we would encounter, such as LBGTQ, depression, abuse, and suicide. We also learned how to answer calls, and what to say or not to say on a call.
CBH: What is the KUTO organization all about?
Anna: KUTO, which stands for Kids Under Twenty One, is all about teens helping teens. Anyone from age 16 – 21 can volunteer to answer the phones. I think that this hotline is beneficial because the caller is talking to someone who can relate. I may not have experienced or gone through exactly what the caller has, but I am in that same spot in life. I think that it’s important for teens to know that even when their friends or family members are not there for them, there is someone who is there to listen. We have also hosted a few bullying events, and we have a few people who visit schools to get our name out there.
CBH: What is your typical work schedule?
Anna: I try to volunteer at KUTO at least once a week, or four times a month. It was easier in the summer to work more, but with school, a job, and KUTO, it gets difficult to do more than once a week. Every volunteer is required to take at least one weekend shift, so no one is stuck with all Friday night shifts.
CBH: What is the work environment like – are you with other volunteers in one room? Do you have a supervisor?
Anna: The hotline is based in Brentwood (a suburb of St. Louis). It’s a small building with a few office rooms and the hotline room. We have one phone with two lines, so there is only one volunteer at a time, with a supervisor who is over 21, and has typically worked as a volunteer as well.
CBH: What happens if you take a call that is difficult to handle?
Anna: If I get a call that is difficult to take, I usually just try to handle it on my own. I have never had to have a support staff member join in on the call, but I almost did once when a girl had cut herself very badly and was worried she needed to go to the hospital. The support staff has to join in on the call if emergency care is needed, such as calling the police or hospital for a person who is in the progress of attempting suicide, or for abuse calls under age 18. But, for the most part, the volunteers stay with the call until it is finished.
CBH: Do you get “prank” calls? If so, how are those handled?
Anna: Yes, we do get prank calls. I actually find it annoying when we get prank calls, because it sends the message that they think suicide and depression is a joke. I wish people would think about the fact that if they are holding up the line making a prank call, they could prevent someone who actually needs help from reaching us. I can usually tell when someone is making a prank call. It generally involves a very childish story, with lots of pauses and giggles in the background. I’m always hesitant to end a prank call though, because I always think what if this could be real? Prank calls are about the only thing we have a script for, but I usually don’t have to read it because if I just say “This is a prank call and the subject for which you are calling is not a crisis” they will hang up.
CBH: How many hours do you work per shift and how many calls do you take?
Anna: A weekday shift lasts for 3 hours; Fridays and Saturdays are 4 hours. There really is no average. Some shifts I will get no calls, and others I’ll get a bunch. I think the most I’ve ever had was six calls in one shift, but I would say three is probably the average.
CBH: Are all the calls about suicide or do people call about other issues – if so, can you describe other reasons why people call in?
Anna: The calls can be about anything. Officially, KUTO is a crisis hotline, so we deal with anything that a teen might consider a crisis. LGBTQ, depression, suicide, abuse, bullying, and loneliness are some of the most common issues I get. Sometimes, people call with a mixture of all the issues.
CBH: Are the callers mainly teens or kids? If yes, what is the age range?
Anna: We ask for the caller’s name and age when the call first begins, so I can usually tell what age a person is. Callers are mostly teenagers, although I have callers as young as 9 and as old as 35.
CBH: What trends, if any, are you seeing?
Anna: I see trends in isolation. I think that many kids contemplate suicide because they feel alone, especially with social networking. If you don’t get enough likes on a picture or favorites for tweets then people feel like they are not good enough, pretty enough, funny enough. I think that people see their peers being more active and posting, and they feel like they are not as social or involved, and it can lead to isolation. People then try to distance themselves from old friends and find new friends, but they find that difficult.
CBH: What is the most rewarding aspect of working on the suicide hotline?
Anna: The most rewarding thing is when someone thanks me at the end of a call. Despite the training, I get nervous at the beginning of every call, because you never know what you’re going to get when you answer the phone. Also, sometimes it feels like there is nothing I can do to help. But when someone thanks me and tells me that I was able to help them, that is the most rewarding thing.
CBH: What is the most difficult aspect of working on the suicide hotline?
Anna: The most difficult aspect of working on the hotline is a caller who refuses to try. Sometimes callers expect me to solve everything, when really all I can do is be someone to listen and try to work through a problem with them. I feel like I failed when someone does not cooperate with the call. It’s also difficult when someone calls and has no hope for themselves. I wish I could just tell them that everything is going to be OK, but I can’t, and if they won’t try, then there is not really anything I can do.
CBH: What message would you like to tell someone who is thinking about suicide?
Anna: People do care. I think the most upsetting thing about suicide is that once a person kills themselves, everyone comes out to support them. And I’m always thinking, “Where were you before?” Especially with Facebook, it is so easy to see all of the messages that people leave after someone commits suicide. All of the hundreds of messages say something like “I love you, we miss you, I’m so sorry,” but then it’s like, "Why weren’t you there for them before that?" And I wish that kids could see all of that before they decide to commit suicide. People do care. I would ask someone considering suicide to first consider all of the people that they will affect once they are gone. Also, a lot of people think that if they bring up the subject of suicide, it will make a person start to consider it. But that’s not true. If you think someone could be depressed or potentially thinking about suicide, ask. You’ll feel so much worse if you say nothing.
CBH: What factors do you see at work that are driving teens to consider suicide?
Anna: I think lack of support is the most influential thing driving teens to suicide. They feel lonely, like they have no friends and no one there to support them. They can’t talk to their parents, their friends have grown distant, and there is no one to turn to. At that point, they give up hope. Also, I think that in today’s teen world, it is very difficult to get outside of your box. Teens are judged for everything they do, by both peers and adults. The lack of confidence makes teens isolate themselves and feel self-conscience, and when that happens they feel alone, and may consider suicide.
CBH: Do you think the problem of suicide with teens increasing, staying about the same, or increasing?
Anna: I think that the problem of suicide is increasing. Within just the past year I can think of about 4 teen suicides that have affected the St. Louis area, and not only are teens committing suicide, but adults are as well, which forces a teen to deal with that. I remember asking a friend’s mom, who has lived in St. Louis her whole life, if she had to deal with all of that when she was our age, and she said, "No, it seems more prominent in our life today."
CBH: Do you have any closing thoughts that you would like to share that we did not already cover?
Anna: Everyone just needs to know that they are not alone. There is someone out there who feels the way that you do, and there are a ton of people who care. Also, everyone needs to know that it is OK to call a hotline like this. Volunteers at KUTO never judge the callers; we are here because we want to be. Boys and girls alike call, and it shows no weakness that you are calling. Actually, it shows strength, because you know when you need help.
Thanks for reading our interview. "Suicide in the School Community," our recent presentation on teen suicide prevention, is another helpful resource that you may be interested in.