It’s Not About You…and other lessons from a crisis hotline


For the last year, I’ve volunteered answering phones one night a week at a crisis hotline. I started doing this to make helping others part of my life. My day-to-day work is full of emails, conference calls, and writing things that no one will read, and I often feel like I’m not making a tangible impact. Although my motivation was to help others, I’ve found something unexpected: mostly the hotline has helped me. Here are six important lessons I’ve learned since becoming a volunteer:

1. I got it good

I started volunteering not long after a big break up, and while I didn’t mean to help people worse off than me in order to feel good about my own life, that’s what happened. Most of the people that call are dealing with a mental illness and/or a serious emotional issue, and have few (if any) people in their lives to support them. After spending a few hours listening to other people’s problems, I leave the hotline feeling so lucky about all the good things in my life, especially my many supportive friends and family members, not to mention good brain chemistry. Walking out of the hotline’s office to head home, I am almost glowing with gratitude.

2. How to take better care of myself

Answering calls can be draining, so it’s important for us volunteers to keep our own spirits up. “Self-care” was a big topic during the volunteer training. I learned my best self-care lesson from the attitude that I take with callers. Recently, I was feeling upset during one of my shifts at the hotline. I had worked myself into a panic about my relationship, worried that my boyfriend didn’t care about me.  I took a bathroom break to cry a bit in one of the stalls. I asked myself, “What would I tell a caller?” I had been treating my own feelings dismissively (“I’m just overreacting; everything is fine”), but if someone else were expressing the same things, I would have validated their feelings, telling them that’s its ok to be upset, and talking them through why they are feeling that way.  It’s hard to invite your own help, but I have gotten better at it by becoming more practiced helping others.

3. The term “help-rejecting”

This happens a lot on the hotline: someone calls, upset about some problem, and shoots down all of my suggestions, however reasonable. They are help-rejecting, and when someone is help-rejecting, they don’t want my advice. So I try to stop giving it. It doesn’t mean that I’m not actually helping. Sometimes all they really want is to vent to someone who will listen and not criticize. Even with friends, I have found it very helpful to be able to name this behavior. I sometimes get frustrated when I feel like I’m trying to help, only to be met with (usually weak!) reasons that my great suggestions aren’t going to work. Once I can say (to myself), “oh, she’s being help-rejecting,” I can let go of my need to help by trying to solve the problem and just listen.

4. The importance of white space

After I got comfortable taking calls, I was shocked that my favorite part of each shift was the time in-between calls. During this time, I am free to do what I want (limited of course by the need to stay close to the phone). I don’t have to do anything. After all, I’m already volunteering, ready for the next call. I can allow myself to do exactly what I feel like at that moment. When I first started, I made lists of things I wanted to get done, only to find that I rarely got to most of them. I stopped making lists and started just asking myself “what do I most want to do now?” Sometimes, it’s to read the news, catch up on emails, read a book, shop online, or doodle. I’m trying to bring this attitude into the rest of my life and leave more unscheduled time, white space, to do exactly want I feel like that moment. As Brene Brown describes, “Cultivate and appreciate the white space for what it is, not for what I can squeeze out of it.”

5. Sometimes you need to hang up

I have a hard time saying no, and an especially hard time being rude. Our calls generally have a minute time limit: if the caller isn’t having a crisis, I try to politely end the call after about 10 minutes. Most of our regular callers are very understanding of this limit, but occasionally I get someone who argues back or just keeps talking over my attempts to end the call. Eventually, I just hang up (with a “Thank you for calling, I need to hang up now!”). Sometimes, I need to disengage. It feels rude and uncomfortable, but it’s ok.

6. It’s not about you

Here’s how it goes at the hotline: people call and I talk to them – or rather, mostly I listen. Sometimes, by the end of the call, I feel like I’ve helped them, but often I don’t. Neither of these outcomes is really about me. I just meet the caller wherever they are.  This is generally true in life. Your partner is upset? Your boss is whispering to a colleague? Your friend didn’t return your call? It’s so easy to react to all of these personally. What did I do? What are they saying about me? The answer: probably nothing. Nine times out of ten, it’s not about you. At all. Your partner is upset about work, your boss is whispering because it’s a sensitive topic about a client, and your friend got busy because her mom needed her help.

When these feelings come up, sometimes I still get upset and wonder what I did wrong. Then, I remember what I’ve learned at the hotline, and I try to list likely explanations that have nothing to do with me, and go back to feeling grateful about my life.

Images: Roy Lichtenstein: “Ohhh…Alright” (1964) and “M-Maybe” (1965)


  1. TH

    I am in my first clinical year of medical school (M3). My freshman year in high school my brother and parents were killed in a car accident and I largely raised myself, even as a ward of the court. Since then I’ve had some very serious runs with depression, and at the urging of public service announcements I see everywhere, thought I’d try the hotlines. The first time I called in high school, a guy answered. I didn’t quite know what to say, so told him I suffer exhausting nightmares. He appeared wholly disinterested and in under five minutes told me he head to go. I felt like I’d been punched in the gut, put said bye and left.

    Over the years, I’ve tried hotlines when I feel extremely suicidal. I’ve been told by hotline staff that I’m hypersensitive. That I’m over-reacting. That I don’t want help, just attention. And while I am objective enough to recognize that some criticisms are likely valid, someone on the edge doesn’t need to feel beaten up.

    Then again, reading this article made me feel like I’m just bothering hotline workers/volunteers. I may not have good brain chemistry. My relatives are dead and I don’t have trustworthy friends–the author’s healthy support system. Together with other things I’m struggling with, I’m sure I’m a drain on people–and crisis line workers are no exception.

    A few days ago I tried a web-based support chat line. The person on the other end was very, very cheery during the intro small-talk. They asked me how I am, and I replied that I was in a reasonably safe space but that I find it frustrating that I cannot safely discuss my feelings about life value and my suicidal thoughts. Suddenly, the conversation ground to a halt. No, “Sorry, I’m busy,” or “I suggest you call…” Over the next half hour, I’d look at a blank screen, no comment forthcoming, despite my short, polite messages to my counselor.

    Judges, lawyers, politicians, police officers, doctors, teachers, and crisis volunteers/counselors–everyone who works in some capacity “for the public’s welfare”–are all ultimately human. And that’s what’s been hard for me to learn. I tend to think of these people as exceptional, significantly different, better. But they’re all just like the rest of us, deluged with character flaws and conflicting moral interests and ethical inconsistencies.

    In all honesty, the next time I feel overwhelmed and alone–which is often, I won’t reach out to a professional. Many of the problems people like me experience aren’t organic, I’m convinced. And the biomedical literature is increasingly challenging the thesis of depression-caused-by-neuropathology. An alternative explanation is that much depression is cultural and personal, and reflects how well an individual fits with her or his communities. I know most people in the “mental health” field don’t agree with me, and that’s OK. But reading (thank you) about a crisis worker’s own assessment of her time working the hotlines confirms my beliefs about the helping fields, and makes sense of my consistent experiences with hotline staff–via phone and online.

    Help-rejecting. White space. The imperative to hang up; sometimes. And the gratitude that comes from reflecting on having it good. These are all important responses-to-the-depressed for depressed-but-cognizant people to be aware of–ones I hope the author won’t mind me sharing. Thank you for the honesty.

    • steph

      Hi there, thank you for sharing your story here. I’m truly sorry that you’ve had such negative experiences with crisis lines. Since they are mostly volunteer run, I can understand that the quality of the response you get can vary. I certainly don’t think that you are a bother to anyone who picks up on the other end– talking to or chatting with anyone having a hard time, whether eminently suicidal, depressed or just down for a day, is exactly what crisis line volunteers and professionals are there for.

      I certainly agree with your assessment that we are all human and imperfect! Sometimes, that meant that I didn’t respond as well to a caller as I’d have liked. I would encourage you to keep reaching out– both to crisis lines and professionals. While I think you are probably right that depression is cultural and personal, I do think (from my own experience) that being able to connect to other people can help. I think it’s the meeting of two imperfect people that makes me feel less alone, rather than hoping that the other person will have the right answers.

      Thank you again for sharing your thoughts!

    • Kitty

      Thank you for sharing your story. I’m sorry for your loss and the way it’s affected your entire life. I agree with you that the hotline employees seem too blase and cavalier with what’s at stake-people’s lives. I tried calling the domestic abuse hotline the other day because I had gotten beaten very badly a few weeks ago and wasn’t handling it well mentally. The person answered the call and I didn’t know where to begin the story so I asked if it was ok that I had a long story and she replied “can you make it a short story? ” I was like sorry for bothering you and hung up. Obviously if I’m calling a hotline I don’t have a big support of family and friends, so how much longer could my story be if I told it the long was versus the edited version, 5 minutes? Is someone’s life not worth 5 minutes of the hotlines time? What if I was suicidal? My mother and aunt both committed suicide and I see why, because sometimes it’s so blatantly obvious that nobody in the world cares about anyone but themselves so what’s the point of living. That’s being cynical but I’m making a statement from the point of view of the suicidal. If only there were more people in the world who truly gave a rat’s ass about the feelings and well being of others, this world would be a better place.

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