Our own volunteer speaks to the experience of how their work is interpreted, versus what it’s actually like to volunteer with YouthLine!
A reminder that YouthLine is an essential service during the COVID19 shutdown. Teen volunteers are here to answer calls, texts, and chats from 4pm-10pm PST every day. Adults answer calls at all other times. Reach out if you need support!
Youthline, as well as the small number of organizations like it, dotting the United States and beyond, is a radical concept. You take an already stigmatized topic like mental health, and mix it in with teens with whom, in a rapidly changing and digital world, the adults often have a hard time connecting. The result is a discussion about teen mental health, even more stigmatized than discussions around mental health in general. Adults have a hard time remembering the fact that teens indeed are human beings, capable of suffering from mental health issues, conditions, and other problems. As an extension of this, resources specifically aimed towards teens in crisis are all too seldom, and those that do exist are often composed of adults who, even with the most amount of training, will never fully understand what being a teen is like in 2020.
Not only is Youthline aimed towards teens in the resources it provides and the work it does, but it is staffed almost entirely by teen volunteers, overseen by masters-level clinical supervisors. I, in my Sophomore year of high school, have volunteered at Youthline since the beginning of my Freshman year, and have dreamed of volunteering at Youthline for even longer: Since I was only twelve years old, facing my own mental health challenges and knowing that supporting others like me was a passion of mine. Because of Youthline’s unique work, we often catch the attention of the media– from news interviews to documentary features– wanting to paint a picture of what being a Youthline volunteer is like..
While I, as well as many of my peer volunteers are always eager to discuss what volunteering at Youthline means to us and how it has affected our lives, we often find ourselves annoyed by questions which, although well intended, often are repetitive, preconceived, and focused on the negative aspects of our work. One such question, and something I have personally been asked many times during interviews, is something along the lines of, “Aren’t you sad all the time?” Of course, this is a question that I’m sure is the first to come to many peoples’ minds– we are kids doing work that is very heavily dominated by adults, with an undeniably high burnout rate. It’s common sense– hearing all of our peers’ problems and supporting them in that place wears us out, right? Wrong.
When I am asked to answer questions like these, I often find myself explaining what the process of being a Youthline volunteer is like: The overall atmosphere of the Youthline space, and the details of our training. Youthline volunteers go through over sixty hours of training, including two standardized certifications, Youth Mental Health First Aid USA and safeTALK. This excludes several continued education opportunities offered both by Youthline and our parent organization, Lines for Life (including ASIST certification, which we obtain after several months of volunteering). During this process, we learn not only how to support our peers, but how to check in with ourselves; destigmatize potential demons of our own, and learn how to reach out for help. When we get on the lines, before we take contacts, we go through several shadow shifts, where we are trained on the software we use to do the work we do, and observe Youthliners in action, and finally, we establish a regular weekly shift. While we’re working on the lines, we are always supervised by a masters-level clinician with experience in the field, who are always there to support us with every contact we take, and with whom we have strong relationships. The Youthline environment is a place of safety, where we operate not only as shiftmates (a benefit of the regular shift schedule) but also as friends. Youthline has helped me to develop some of my strongest friendships, even after many of my Youthline friends moved away to college. While each contact affects us in a different way, our supervisors and shiftmates provide the space for us to talk through our feelings, and stepping out is always an option. Many Youthliners will even tell you that particularly “challenging” contacts have helped them to develop their empathy and ability to connect with contacts. If you have experience working at crisis lines, you may be thinking, “Wow, this sounds like a lot of other lines”. That’s because it is.
Well-meaning journalists aren’t the only ones who highlight concerns about our work. Many who work in mental health and suicide prevention also display skepticism. Last April, I got the opportunity through Youthline to attend the American Association of Suicidology Convention in Denver, where Youthline, teamed up with the L.A. based TeenLine, had the incredible opportunity to present fascinating statistics relating to the exponential growth of our contact base and measurements of effectivity of our line. The most common questions which we received had to do with this idea of collateral trauma as a result of the combination of doing this work and our young age. As we looked over the crowd to whom we were speaking, we witnessed something incredible: When our skeptics took the time to listen to what Youthline really meant to us, their faces changed from furrowed brows and stern faces to those of new understanding.
The fact is that in an age where mental health issues are so rampant among our age group, teens will have these discussions no matter what. Ask any odd teen, and chances are they will be able to reflect on a time where they sat up late at night texting a friend in distress– The only difference between any odd teen and us is that we have the training and appropriate outlets to be able to more effectively support our peers. I myself had these conversations with my friends long before I knew how to handle situations like this, and while these conversations used to be taxing, draining my mental health, Youthline training, aside from giving me the tools necessary to volunteer at Youthline, has acted as a toolbox of sorts. It has changed the way that I talk to people, and taught me that it’s okay not to be okay, and it’s okay to step back from the things in life that stress us out.
The Youthline environment, the training, the peer component, the strong bonds developed, both between shiftmates and supervisors, even the snacks! All of these components act as pieces of the puzzle that makes organizations like Youthline tick. Entering Youthline at a time of change, I have seen our call volume exponentially increase in just a year and a half, as well as the establishment of a Youthline space in Central Oregon, based in Bend, where we work alongside Central Oregon Youth trained to do the same work we do. Youthline is only growing, and helps thousands of youth per year. If you’re still uneasy about the idea of youth supporting other youth, I understand, but I challenge you to think of us not as kids thrown on a crisis line, but as trained specialists, adequately prepared and supported in doing life-changing (and at times, life-saving) work on both sides of the phone.