Gearing Up For My First Overnight Crisis Line Shift

I’m settling in for my second shift for my university’s crisis line, and my first overnight shift. It was a beautiful day, and it was difficult to drag myself into our underground lair, but here I am until 8 tomorrow morning. It’s a pretty nice little room, painted earth tones and with lots of nice nature photography framed on the walls. I have my own bathroom, TV, computer, fridge, microwave, bed, and, of course, coffee maker. I don’t plan on drinking any coffee. If no one calls, I’d like to be able to get to sleep tonight. I’m anticipating being able to sleep fine. It’s very quiet here, and the room gets very dark with the lights off. That is, unless someone calls–the phone rings very loudly. And it’s also possible that the possibility of getting a call will keep me up–I haven’t had a call yet. We’ll see!

The first thing I do is make sure the phones are working. We have two, one for crisis calls, and one backup. I have a backup colleague and two supervisors that I can call or text if I get in over my head. I can also bring them in on a three-way call, if it seems the right thing to do. I don’t anticipate that, but it’s nice to know I can. They are all very experienced at this job.

The next thing I do is look over the call sheets since my last shift. Every call gets its own sheet. It’s been pretty slow in the last week–only a few calls. It’s tempting to think that that means it’s unlikely I’ll get a call tonight, but I have no idea. I also looked back a couple months to see if there was any easily recognizable pattern for Friday shifts, but there wasn’t. Just in our current call sheet book we have calls going back about a year, and I believe that we have sheets for many years around somewhere. This line has been running for about 40 years. (And, unfortunately, the administration is shutting us down at the end of this term, for beaurocratic reasons.) I would love to enter all this info into a stats program and look for patterns! I don’t believe I would be allowed to do that, though. There would be no way to get consent from our past ”research participants.” The line is totally anonymous.

The next thing I do is look at our “regular caller” book. I didn’t know this about hotlines, but there are people who use them regularly, mostly very isolated individuals, taking advantage of a free, professinal listening service to help them deal with their troubles. Pretty smart thing to do, really. It had never occurred to me. We have extensive files on these folks, sometimes going back decades. They have “contracts,” too–agreements they’ve made with us about how often and what times they can call, because they don’t tend to be in crisis, just needing some listening. The regular caller book has all the regular caller call sheets, a record of their current contracts, and a list of their calls with how much time they have left until a certain date.

Then I wait for someone in crisis to call. We define a crisis as a situation where a person’s stress overcomes their ability to cope. This can happen a lot of different ways. Our call sheets have the following categories, in addition to “other”: academic, alcohol/drugs, anxiety (popular one), bereavement/grief (another popular one), depression (popular), domestic violence, eating disorder, harassment/descrimination, homocide, information/referral, interpersonal/relationship (popular), loneliness, medical/somatic, psychosis, sexual abuse/rape, sexual concerns, sexually exploitive (this is where a caller tries to use us as a masterbation aid), sexual orientation/gender ID, and suicide (also popular).

When someone calls, I am to go through a six-step process with them. 1) Assess for immidiate danger (“Are you in a safe place to talk?”), 2) establish communication and rapport, 3) assess the problem (keep it to one–the biggest problem–and make it specific, as vague problems are almost impossible to solve), 4) assess strengths and resources, 5) formulate a short-term (tonight) and long-term (tomorrow) plan, and 6) mobilize the client, obtaining commitment to the plan and contracting for safety if they have been thinking about suicide. Throughout the process I am to be assessing the potential for suicidality, listening for clues like “feeling overwhelmed,” “worthless”–any indication that they might be thinking about hurting themselves. If that comes up, I have another process to go to. Maybe I’ll write about that in another post.

Well, wish me luck. I’m not sure what being lucky would be. It’s easy to hope for no calls–”no news is good news,” as my dad likes to say. On the other hand, if someone is out there in trouble, I really want them to call. I’d feel lucky to get to help someone out of a jam. That’s something to know. Crisis line workers want you to call if you need help. We’re not particularly doing this for the money. I make something like $85 per shift. Not a lot.

If no one does call, I’m planning to study until I get tired and then go to bed. I’ll let you know what happens. I won’t be able to tell you the details, of course, but I can say if I got a call.

[First published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, April 26, 2010.]