My early teenage years were troubled and filled with distress. I was going through an intense turbulence myself when I realized that I wanted to reach out and help people who seemed to be unhappy like me. I was 16 when I began my training at Youth Line, an NGO-run suicide helpline service in Lithuania. Although I partly joined because I was trying to impress a girl I liked at the time (I’m sure you can relate), I really wanted to support people in their time of emotional need, the same way someone once did for me.
My first attempt to join Youth Line was unsuccessful and I was not selected after my training period. I admit, I did find it awfully strange that I was deemed unfit to help people when it seemed like there were so many in need of it. I accepted my disappointment and spent time working on myself instead. I went through my journey of therapy, self-discovery and self-understanding before I made a second attempt to volunteer at Youth Line and this time, I found my success. Once I got selected, I started to actively take calls from individuals in emotional distress who were seeking help and began a journey that would go on to define a large part of my life. I pursued my doctorate in Clinical Psychology to study the subject of suicide in more depth, became the Director of Youth Line, and experienced the process of training people like my 16 year old self to volunteer for the service.
People who volunteer for suicide helplines can come from a variety of backgrounds and may have no experience at all in the mental health field. We start them off with basic theory about mental health, suicide ideation, and emotional challenges, but focus a majority of the time on practical training; this is critical. Each volunteer goes through role-playing exercises, so volunteers get a realistic idea of how to respond and react to a variety of situations. The volunteers then start to shadow real-life phone calls that the experienced volunteers answer. And after this, the volunteers begin taking calls themselves with the experienced volunteers listening in and on stand-by. The training methodology is a continually evolving process, and we keep learning how to improve ourselves.
However, we must continually stress on two critical practices and values that stand the test of time; listening with care and communicating with directness.
I cannot understate the importance of listening to understand and sincerely care rather than to respond. It seems like such a simple thing to practice in everyday life, but an uncompromisable quality in a helpline worker. We must learn how to be very patient and hear out someone who is in emotional distress. One of the values of a helpline is to show, genuinely, that someone wants to spend time and understand your story. It can be a small but powerful motivation to seek help knowing that someone will pick up the phone in the middle of the night and care enough to listen to you and put you first.
It’s equally important to address the subject of suicide directly and talk about it with openness and sensitivity at the same time. It’s essential not to tiptoe around the topic, but to ask questions about thoughts, ideation, attempts, and planning of suicide and understand the mental state of the caller. All Youth Line volunteers are repeatedly trained to practice this when they are taking calls.
Even after several years of running the centre, it is difficult to understand how effective your work is and this can be an uncomfortable reality to confront. All calls that come into Youth Line are anonymous, so in reality, we don’t know what happens after it has ended. We can’t tell with certainty that we have managed to extend the help the person needs or not, however, there are a few things that we have tried to do. Immediately after the call has ended, we request the caller for feedback on how helpful they found the service. This doesn’t guarantee complete or accurate feedback, but it is one method of evaluation. We also ask quality analysis staff and professionals from academic circles to assess the centre's effectiveness and provide us with inputs on areas of improvement. This allows us to have a non-biased judgment about our work as well.
Although my experience has been in Lithuania and different countries may have different ways of setting up and training volunteers to offer this kind of service, I have learnt that it is a process you have to keep learning and improving. There is no silver bullet of execution, but there are values that you cannot compromise on when you genuinely want to help people who are struggling with their mental health.
It is both strange and enlightening to see the full circle of life during my time at Youth Line. When I was a teenager, I was a caller myself. I was in distress, and I reached out to Youth Line, and one of the calls was extremely helpful to me during my time of need. Over the years, I became the receiver of calls and extended my help to the community.
Looking back on my journey so far, I have seen so many like me; people who were in the midst of a violent emotional turbulence and called the service, and then moved on to became volunteers, extending help to those going through something they could empathise with. It makes one pause and wonder whether there really is a difference between the two roles, or whether what we are witnessing are the ebbs and flows of life.