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Thinking of Calling a Mental Health Crisis Hotline? Here’s What to Expect

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When you’re in the midst of a mental health crisis, it’s difficult to know where to turn for help.

Talking to your doctor is a great way to get a referral for the help you need. But when you’re depressed and struggling, making and keeping that appointment may seem impossible.

Fortunately, help is only a phone call away. You won’t even have to put on your shoes to get it.

I know it sounds like a cliché, but it’s true.

Mental health counselors across the country are available to help you around the clock every day of the year. All you have to do is pick up the phone.

Best of all, it’s free and confidential.

But calling a complete stranger to talk about your difficulties can be intimidating and raises all kinds of questions about what to expect.

I talked with Frances Gonzalez, director of communications at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, to find out what goes on behind the scenes when you make that call.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a network of local crisis centers across the country, fielded over two million distress calls in 2017. Its phones are staffed night and day, every day, to connect callers to a local crisis center based on area code.

When is it Appropriate to Call a Crisis Line?

Gonzalez says the help line assists people in all kinds of situations, and everyone is welcome to call for any reason.

“There is no particular scenario that says, ‘Yes, you should call or no, you shouldn't call,’” says Gonzalez. “If you're looking for any kind of support or have a concern about somebody else, or you just need somebody to talk to, if you're thinking about calling, then call. That's what the line is here for.”

Though the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline focuses primarily on mental health issues, it can also help callers connect with local resources that treat drug addiction, alcohol misuse and other crisis concerns.

Do I Need to Have Medical Insurance to Call a Crisis Line?

Don’t let a lack of medical insurance keep you from calling a crisis line. Like most mental health helplines, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free counseling for anyone in distress, no insurance necessary.

What Kind of Training do Mental Health Crisis Counselors Have?

The person you speak with when you call the hotline has formal training on how to work with people who need mental health crisis counseling.  

The exact type of training the counselor has depends on the center that receives the call.

“Because it’s a national network of local centers, we have centers that have counselors that all have master’s degrees or bachelor's degrees,” says Gonzalez. “Other centers have people who are trained volunteers, or a mix of professional counselors and trained volunteers. All centers are certified and accredited to be part of the Lifeline network.”

What if I Don’t Click With the Crisis Counselor?

It can be difficult to make a personal connection over a telephone line, so I asked Gonzalez what callers should do if things just aren’t clicking with the counselor who takes their call.

“Counselors are trained to build that rapport with a caller, but if you're not feeling comfortable you can always ask to be switched to someone else,” says Gonzalez.

It’s also perfectly all right to hang up and call back to get a different counselor. Don’t worry about hurting the crisis line worker’s feelings. The counselors want you to get the help you need even if that means speaking to a different person.

What Questions Will the Crisis Counselor Ask?

When you call the Lifeline, Gonzalez says, “a counselor will ask you why you’re calling and what your situation is, and then essentially just talk to you.

They’ll help you try to find a solution to your concerns. Sometimes that means just having a conversation and providing reassurance. Other times that might mean connecting you to a local resource based on what you're looking for,” she adds.

Will the Counselor Call the Police on Me?

Callers are encouraged to be open and honest about what’s going on without fearing the authorities will show up at their front door.

“Most counselors will do their best to de-escalate a situation, so getting in touch with other individuals is not typically done without someone’s permission,” says Gonzalez.

Can I Call a Crisis Line if I Think Someone Else is in Crisis?

Gonzalez says it’s perfectly all right to call the helpline for assistance if you’re concerned a friend or family member is in crisis.

Though she was unable to comment on how the crisis line responds to specific scenarios, Gonzalez said, “If we have people who call and are asking questions and say they are concerned about somebody else, then that counselor will be able to provide resources.”

The bottom line, says Gonzalez, is to reach out if you need help.

“If you feel that you’re in crisis or just want to talk to somebody, we always encourage people to call the Lifeline,” she says.

Where to Reach Out For Help

If you or someone you know is in crisis, here are some additional resources that can help:

For affordable mental health care services and therapy, check this list of resources.

Lisa McGreevy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder.

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