You may be nervous about calling a suicide hotline, but know that hotline volunteers want you to feel heard and supported.
It can be scary when thoughts of suicide arise, and you may feel alone and unsure where to seek help. But try to remember that help is available and that you’re not the only one going through difficult feelings and thoughts.
Suicidal thoughts and behaviors are common. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), someone dies by suicide in the United States every
Suicidality or suicidal ideation can arise for many reasons and be overwhelming, especially if the episode is acute and you feel unsupported. If you’re interested in seeking professional assistance, there are several options — both virtual and in-person — that could potentially meet your needs.
Still, sometimes there are more urgent needs, and waiting for an appointment may not feel feasible. Maybe you’re considering checking into the hospital, or maybe you just need someone to talk with. Whatever your reasoning, it can be helpful to know what to expect beforehand.
A suicide hotline, sometimes referred to as a crisis hotline, is a free service where an individual can reach out for support during a crisis.
While you may think of a hotline as a place to call, chat and text versions have been created in recent years. These can be helpful for those who may not be in a safe space to make a phone call or have anxiety around talking on the phone.
While everyone’s experience is different, especially depending on the modality you choose, it can be helpful to know what to expect and whom you may interact with before you dial the number.
Before the call
Depending on your method of contact, there is usually a short wait time to be connected to a volunteer or counselor, ranging from 30 seconds to 10 minutes on average, depending on their call volume. Try not to be discouraged — someone will get to you as soon as they can.
How can they help me?
The ultimate goal of a suicide hotline is to de-escalate the situation. This can look like:
- active listening
- providing feedback
- sharing resources and coping skills
The end goal of the call depends on the individual. Some folks call or text a hotline because they need support, and not necessarily because they’re planning to hurt themselves — and that’s OK.
Kevin Bender, a former Trevor Project lifeline volunteer, says, “Sometimes what helping looked like was providing education resources. Sometimes it looked like providing local resources. Sometimes it looked like just listening.”
Marta Waris, who used to volunteer for Crisis Text Line, shares that the end goal is often to create an action plan, even if it is just for the night into the next day.
“That plan can be anything from, ‘I’m going to go listen to music and write in my journal [tonight],’ or ‘I’m going to go call my friend, Sam, who told me I can call them anytime,’ or ‘Tomorrow, I’m going to talk to the counselor at my school.’”
Both former volunteers shared that no two calls are identical because everyone’s experiences and needs are vastly different. What you can expect, though, is that the conversation will be open and geared toward you feeling heard and supported.
Who are the people on the other end?
The people on the other end of the line are trained volunteers eager to support you through this tough time. Kevin says, “My favorite parts were really just listening to people and empathizing with them and trying to make people feel understood and that they were not alone.”
Generally, the folks helping are volunteers, but there is always training involved. Both Marta and Kevin stress that the organizations they volunteered with have thorough training, showing their commitment to educating everyone on empathy and tangible support.
”They provide you with quite an extensive education on all sorts of different topics… it’s a very broad and deep education on mental health and sexuality and all the different reasons why someone might be calling a suicide hotline,” says Kevin.
Are the hotlines confidential?
The content of your conversation with your trained worker is confidential, and you can share as little or as much as you feel comfortable.
Whether there is a potential for a follow-up call depends on the particular organization.
Kevin explains that at The Trevor Project, callers are welcome to request a call the next day, and after some safety-related questions (whether they can leave a voicemail, etc.), it can be scheduled, though you may not receive the same worker to speak with.
You may be referred to a local organization or a licensed social worker for further assistance in some cases.
In cases where a caller is in immediate danger, local services may be dispatched to their location for a wellness check. The hotline volunteer does their best to ensure the caller is a part of the conversation so that no one will show up at your door unexpectedly.
Still, if there are serious safety concerns and you hang up the phone, emergency services may be dispatched for a safety check.
It can be scary to be vulnerable with someone you don’t know and whom you can’t even see. When dealing with depression, another mental illness, or just a rough patch — feeling as if someone is judging you can feel like a kick while you’re down.
Though it may feel uncomfortable to ask for help, the volunteers are there to help. Some callers may hesitate to tell the total truth out of concern about emergency services being called, but try to remember that this happens only if the hotline volunteer has grave safety concerns.
Both Marta and Kevin say the goals of crisis lines are de-escalation and support.
Still, the volunteers don’t always get it right, and there may be times when a caller leaves the conversation feeling unsupported.
For some, the time that passes within the conversation is enough to get them out of the immediate crisis, and they’re able to check themselves into a hospital or move forward with scheduling an outpatient appointment.
It’s essential to try and remember going in that these folks are going to aid you to the best of their abilities, but their potential shortcoming is in no way a reflection of you and the help you deserve.
If you called a crisis hotline and feel the service didn’t help you, this article outlines alternative ways to help you through a crisis, including:
- making a mental health crisis plan
- learning coping skills like deep breathing
- getting out of the house and to a public place like a coffee shop
- talking with a trusted ally
Also, just because one crisis hotline didn’t work for you doesn’t mean that a different one won’t be the right fit.
Release the self-stigma
The fear of judgment keeps many folks from reaching out to anyone during these times.
Kevin notes that someone decided to go through training and sit on the other end of the phone with you. In his experience, no one is there to judge you. “I think that was probably [one of] the biggest one[s]… the internalized stigma against suicide,” he says.
“Sometimes, there was this sense that the person on the phone felt like, ‘You’re probably judging me for having these feelings,’ or ‘You wouldn’t understand.’
“This belief that no one would understand and no one would identify with their feelings, which was always really hard to hear because, of course, I as a volunteer am there to support and empathize and understand and have the education and training to do just that,” Kevin says. “I wouldn’t be there picking up the phone if I didn’t want to help.”
You know yourself better than anyone — you determine when it’s the right time to reach out for additional support. Regardless of the reason — if it’s because you want an objective person to vent to, or maybe because you’re gauging if you should take the next step and visit the hospital, make the decision that’s best for you.
“Reach out,” Marta says. “You can talk about what you’re going through to a kind ear. Come up with a plan for how you’re going to take care of yourself… It is truly a nonjudgmental space to talk about what you’re going through. No one’s going to make any moral judgment calls at you.”
Support isn’t only for crisis
Kevin shares that sometimes, folks would call The Trevor Project’s line with good news. “Sometimes someone would call to share some really great news and just wanted to kind of share and connect… whether someone got the lead in the school play, wanted to talk about their boyfriend or girlfriend,” he says.
“Or, if they had a crush and didn’t know what to do. The lifeline kind of represented a safe space to talk about all of those experiences… some of the calls were just kind of navigating life as an LGBTQ person.”
Suicidality or suicidal ideation is a prevalent symptom for many, especially those with chronic illnesses or diagnosed mental health disorders. The reality is that many people experience passive suicidality (when you think about but don’t plan your death) from time to time, but some thoughts or feelings are worth paying attention to:
- Have your thoughts shifted from passive to an active desire?
- Do you have a plan in place?
- Did you create a timeline to enact this plan?
- Do you have the means to carry out the plan?
If you have answered yes to any of these questions, it may be time to enact your safety plan or consider inpatient options.
If you have thoughts of suicide or are in a mental health crisis, know that you don’t have to navigate these feelings alone.
In addition to your other means of support, like maybe friends, family, or a therapist, some folks have gone through training to be there when you need them.
If you find yourself needing a listening ear on short notice, you don’t have to hesitate to reach out.