One of our long time volunteers provides an insightful list of 9 valuable takeaways from their time volunteering here at 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!
I first heard about a peer to peer crisis line during my freshman year health class in our mental health unit. When brainstorming support resources for mental health struggles, my teacher told us about a teen to teen hotline. The idea of teenagers supporting other teenagers was so inspiring and something I definitely wanted to be a part of. A couple years later, going into my senior year of high school with 500 plus hours of experience on the lines, I can confidently say that volunteering as a teen crisis worker has completely shaped who I am as a person and the way I view youth mental health. I have learned so many invaluable lessons throughout this experience that will forever define the way I see giving and receiving mental health support. Here are 9 important takeaways from my time as a youth peer supporter.
- Helping others doesn’t have to be draining.
Each time I or a fellow volunteer mentions our work to a doctor or family member, we are often met with worried faces and shocked expressions. Understandably so, many fear that the heaviness and pain others share with us will one day become too much, too large of a burden to carry. “Aren’t you taking care of yourself?!” my pediatrician asked. “Isn’t that so, so sad?” Most definitely, the lovely humans I talk to on the lines could tell you the saddest stories. Struggles of parents accepting gender identities, relapses with self-harm, and years of bullying are daily occurrences on the lines. There are definitely days when it’s too easy to be consumed by the darkness. Yet, most nights I leave shift feeling more energized than when I came. Sitting in that virtual space, talking to those most interesting and dynamic teens, clears my heart of a heavy day and wipes my head of the weight of the world. There is no feeling comparable to being a part of someone’s journey to self-love, self-acceptance, and healing, and I gain far much more from the teens I talk to than I could ever give.
- Boundaries, boundaries, and more boundaries.
After talking with my fellow volunteers, I’ve learned that It’s incredibly common for individuals who identify as helpers to have difficulties drawing lines and knowing when to step back from the supportive role. Humans have this inherent, biological response to seeing loved ones or peers in pain, and we often experience these urges to drop everything and put ourselves on the back burner to care of those who are struggling. I too have juggled this. Past experiences of friends in crisis and suicidal ideation left me feeling unsure of when to refer friends to more appropriate resources, when to be a part of the situation myself, and how to balance my own needs with urgent concerns for friends’ safety. With the help of supervisors, conversations with fellow volunteers, and countless hours on the lines, I have learned that it is crucial to ‘practice what I preach!’ Self-care and knowing when to focus on oneself is an invaluable skill, especially necessary when it comes to having the mental capacity to support others. I can’t be what others need me to be unless I’ve taken the time to care for myself and recharge.
- Connecting to anyone and everyone is possible.
On the lines, we get calls, chats, and texts from teens of all personal, political, and cultural backgrounds. I often find myself in the position of supporting someone who holds very different values or beliefs from my own and struggling with ways to navigate the situation. During my time as a peer crisis worker, I’ve learned the importance of leaving my own biases at the door and preventing my viewpoints or political leanings from getting in the way of supporting others. At the end of the day, talking with all types of people in crisis has shown me that the human experience is universal. No matter how different we may be, it is always possible to connect to the way that someone is feeling and the emotions they are struggling with. Any way you slice it, depression is painful. Feeling unloved is lonely. Leaning on these common and shared experiences is monumental to making sure every individual gets the support they need. We cannot let differences get in the way of someone getting the support and space they need.
- Access to mental health care is grotesquely unequal.
Countless teens reach out to us asking for help finding therapy and long term support that meets their financial and cultural needs. Hotlines are a great in-the-moment option, but can’t be everything that someone in crisis needs to achieve wellness. Many individuals seeking out more support simply cannot afford or are unable to get coverage from insurance plans. They are therefore unable to receive therapy, inpatient support, or counseling. This issue has intensified in a COVID world, where teens have lost access to school counselors and support systems. Their journey with mental illness or mental health concerns is made much harder, and they are left struggling severely with few ways to feel better. Experiencing this issue second hand through the teens I talk to on the lines has shown me the utmost importance of recognizing disparities in the mental health care system, and brainstorming ways to improve accessibility for all.
- It’s not about me.
One of the largest lessons I’ve learned throughout this experience is that offering mental health support is not really about what the supporter can do. It’s entirely about the individual wanting to feel better. Many of the people who reach out to us believe they are inherently worthless and a waste of space. My job as a peer crisis worker is simply to reflect the beauty and strength I see in teens back to themselves. My role is to point out the ways in which they are strong and brave, to highlight the validity of their feelings, and celebrate the importance of their life. Being a mental health supporter is not about taking away all of the pain or struggles someone may be experiencing. It’s about helping individuals realize they have the power to help themselves.
- Creative problem solving!
It’s an off day if a curveball isn’t thrown our way on shift. A very unexpected part of this work is the need for creative language, creative ways to reflect emotions and validate feelings, and creative ways to work around unique issues that come up. I have never had to be as creative as I am on the lines! Often times, when working around a concern regarding someone’s safety, we have to think of new ways to ask about suicide or confirm safety that aren’t activating. When it comes to talking about emotions, we are always brainstorming unique and relevant ways to identify feelings and reflect someone’s struggles. In regard to helping someone feel better for the night, we are always testing out new self-care and crisis coping methods. Each individual is so, so different and requires a unique, specialized form of care for their unique and sometimes uncommon circumstances! As a result, I’ve had to learn how to apply my knowledge as a crisis worker in inventive ways and specialize my support for the person at hand.
- People are forgiving.
One of my biggest worries before I began working on the lines was making a mistake that would result in catastrophic consequences, or making someone feel worse. A major takeaway from my time as a volunteer is that humans are looking for another human to talk to. They don’t expect me to be perfect or flawless or to always know the correct thing to say. Most of the time, they just want someone to listen, vent to, and be there to hear them out or sit with them through the pain. When I make a mistake or say the wrong thing, the person on the other end is usually incredibly understanding. We can laugh about it together, poke fun at something imperfect I said, and continue on with the conversation without breaking rapport. I’ve found that many teens find it comforting when I don’t say the perfect thing. We are able to connect over our humanness and strengthen a relationship of trust and care.
- Giving support can be fun and light-hearted!
When I first walked into our small call center, I was quite surprised by the fun, energetic, and exciting nature of the room. The volunteers and supervisors know how to have very serious and heavy conversations about suicide or self-harm. Yet, during down time or in between calls/chats/texts, we are often joking around, listening to Disney soundtracks, or talking about DJ Khaled or Nick Cage. Giving support to others doesn’t have to create a sad and dark environment! It’s so important to balance the pain we hear when talking to people with fun, positivity, and hope. This also holds true for the conversations we have with the teens who reach out. Sometimes, humor and laughter are the best remedies and best ways to get a bit of relief from some of the sadness.
- It’s all in how you say it.
Working on a peer-to-peer crisis line has taught me the importance of language in destigmatizing mental health challenges. The way we say something and the words we use are some of the best ways to show people we care and value their struggles. This comes through the strongest in the way that we talk about suicide, for example. I’ve learned to change my vocabulary to be more sensitive, using phrases such as “completed suicide” instead of “committed suicide.” Asking the question altogether is also a great way to show someone we care and are willing to have the tough conversations in order to help them feel better. Talking about uncomfortable topics, sitting in the darkness with someone, and using sensitive and compassionate language are key steps in destigmatizing mental health, building rapport, and breaking taboo.