What’s it like to volunteer for the Alachua County Crisis Center’s hotline?
It’s midnight. The stars have come out. Doors are locked. Windows are dark.
But out in East Gainesville, a light is still on as Sara Lee, one of approximately 120 volunteers at the Alachua County Crisis Center, prepares to start her night shift in the phone room.
The homey phone room is traditional. Four desks are scattered around the room, each with two white, corded phones on top — a total of eight phone lines. Client notes, filed in manila folders, are written with paper and pencil.
Depending on how busy the night is, Lee, 21, may spend her shift running from desk to desk as she juggles calls, or curled up on the couch, dozing off between chapters of a good book. The number of calls Lee will get is unpredictable, and as the first one comes in, she wonders what tonight will bring.
Lee picks up the phone.
“Crisis center,” she says.
The Alachua County Crisis Center was founded in December 1969 as part of a grant from the University of Florida Clinical Psychology Department to study suicide. It responds to over 60,000 calls a year from all over the country, not just from Alachua County.
Between 2012 and 2014, 103 people committed suicide in Alachua County. About as many commit suicide each day in the U.S.
When people call the national suicide hotline, they’re typically routed to the nearest available crisis center. However, due to the scarcity of centers in most states — Florida, with five, is considered “lucky,” Lee said — people from across the country could be re-routed to Alachua County. Because people call the center for many reasons, ranging from schoolwork to suicide, it’s difficult to predict what a single call will be about.
But regardless of its nature, Lee greets each call with genuine empathy.
“Empathy is always the key factor in being present with someone on a call,” Lee said. Empathy is “allowing yourself to really imagine those emotions [the caller] is feeling, and to allow yourself to be vulnerable, in order to reflect those feelings back to the callers or individuals.”
It comes from a well intentioned place, Lee said, but in day-to-day conversations, people tend to offer advice rather than actively listen and engage with someone in a vulnerable way. Volunteers learn these techniques through a 60-hour, six-week training process. After training they’re asked to commit to a minimum six-month period of volunteering.
Volunteer coordinator Ashley Bobroff is one of five paid staff members at the center. She’s in charge of the in-house training teams, which acquaint volunteers with the phone room, prepare them to make calls and provide support throughout the rigorous training process.
“The actual six-week training process is probably the hardest part of everything,” Bobroff said.
The first technique volunteers learn is called “paraphrasing.”
I hate my dad,” the caller says. “He never listens to me.”
After two years at the crisis center, Lee is a seasoned volunteer. She no longer has to ask herself, “So, what emotion is the caller feeling?” Instead, she immediately responds. Her warm voice is soft and meandering. She always sounds as if she’s smiling.
“You feel frustrated,” she responds. “You feel angry.”
Paraphrases are reflective statements, not questions, that prompt the caller to clarify how he or she feels. A question, Lee said, gives the caller the opportunity to deny their feelings, when what they need is to affirm them. This is especially important when dealing with stigmatized topics like suicide.
One of the most important things they do, she said, is give the crisis a name.
“Since it is usually so taboo,” Lee said, “a lot of these callers may not have had the chance to talk to anyone about this or to confide in anyone that they were thinking about suicide.”
Brandon LaBelle, a fourth-year public relations major at the University of Florida, first called a crisis hotline when he was 15. The volunteer on the phone was the first person he told about the abuse he experienced as a child. He said he found the paraphrasing statements helped him achieve self-awareness, which he considers necessary for managing his bipolar disorder.
“You can just be so caught up in yourself that you don’t even know what’s happening in your head,” he said. “When you’re able to pause and to stop and think … it made me realize how illogical I sounded.”
Sometimes, however, questions are necessary.
I don’t know what else I can do,” the caller says. Lee senses her urgency.
“You’re thinking about killing yourself,” she responds.
“Yes.” The caller’s flat voice lifts for a moment. Lee can hear her breath rasp through the plastic grid of the receiver.
“What is your plan?” She asks honestly. “Do you have a plan? How long have you been thinking about this?”
Lee builds a rapport with the caller using empathy and active listening. Ideally, this lets her direct the conversation into a lethality assessment, where she asks callers questions about their intentions.
This algorithmic process of statements and clarification is called “de-escalation,” a specific technique within the crisis center philosophy that combines everything from the tone of the volunteer’s voice to the words used when labeling the caller’s emotion.
The ultimate goal is to create a connection with the caller.
“Suicide happens when the hopelessness is bigger than [the caller’s] connection,” Bobroff said. “So if you can qincrease their connection, then you can give people a bigger sense of hope.”
LaBelle called a crisis center for the second time last year, when he was experiencing a manic phase after breaking up with his girlfriend.
“I was really scared,” he said. “I felt like I was 15, [but] they talked to me for about 45 minutes. We apartment hunted together. They were getting me all set up to make sure I had a foundation. It really just felt like a normal .conversation — as if I was just calling a friend.”
Though the volunteers can provide support to callers in crisis, they’re taught during training that, ultimately, they can only do so much. Even though the volunteers at the crisis center want to ensure the safety of every individual who calls, Lee said, they understand that it’s not in their power
The caller, now calm after their conversation, hangs up.
As the clock ticks toward dawn, Lee spends the rest of the night taking calls from people across the country, in a place that has become more of a living room than a workspace. Though she’s the only person in the room, she’s not really alone. Her fellow volunteers have become family to her. The crisis center always has an associate on-call; just like the callers, Lee has someone to reach out to.
“It’s a community of very empathetic people who are very open-minded and very sensitive to these issues and to looking out for each other’s well-being,” she said.
Most of the world may be asleep during the night, but Lee and the other volunteers are still awake. By providing support to each caller in need, they, too, listen, learn and grow.
“I was just reflecting on how vulnerable I had become,” she said. “It’s very cool to think back introspectively and realize that I was able to be in the present so literally with another stranger, another person, and just to have that meaningful relationship over a phone call….It’s very much a privilege to be able to do that for so many other people who are calling when they are so vulnerable and sharing something with you that they’ve been unable to share with someone of the closest people in their lives.”
The Alachua County Crisis Center hotline operates 24/7. You can reach the hotline at 352-264-6789. You can learn more about the Alachua Crisis Center at their website here.