14 Suicide Hotline Operators Talk About What Life on the Job Is Like

©Unsplash,Petr Macháček

You have to be a certain kind of person to work as a suicide hotline operator. A strong man or woman with a calm demeanor.

And, perhaps most importantly, an incredibly caring person who genuinely cares about helping other people.

AskReddit users who work as suicide hotline operators opened up and shared their stories.

1. This is interesting.

“I used to work the midnight to 8 am shift at a suicide crisis line. We had 4 different groups of people calling in:

People who were suicidal and looking for help. For this group, it was all about listening, validating, and just being really present with them (and occasionally contacting the police to have them trace the call and send an ambulance if they had overdosed and you could hear that you were losing them on the call).

People who needed resources – had their power shut off due to not being able to pay the bill, etc. For this group, we referred them to the agencies that could help with their specific issues.

People who were regular callers. This group had ongoing mental health issues (paranoid schizophrenia, DID, etc.). For this group, it was chat and connect with them. And update their caseworkers if anything seemed like it needed attention.

People who used the suicide hotline as a phone sex number. They would call and tell us they were suicidal but then you could hear them start to breathe heavy and could hear them masturbating. For this group, I put them on hold and then let my male coworker take the call. That tended to end the fun pretty quickly for them.”

2. Have to take care of yourself.

“Crisis text line volunteer here. It’s incredibly rewarding to bring someone to a place of calm and rationality and see them get help. But when people disconnect mid conversation, it can be hard not to know what happened. Hearing about so many peoples troubled lives can take an emotional toll, so you learn to take care of yourself and only do what you can.”

3. Be a good listener.

“I’m a suicide hotline volunteer in California, been doing this for about 7 months now. Generally we volunteer for 4 hour shifts, usually we have staff who do the overnights. Lot of people come here to get hours for grad school apps, etc.

It’s rewarding some days, other days not so much. Usually 80% of our callers are chronic callers (people who have called for years, and usually multiple times a day) and the other 20% come from the national suicide hotline. Most calls are generally due to depression or loneliness, occasionally suicidal desire with a nonspecific plan. Very few calls are from people who are actively suicidal.

All volunteers go through 80-100 hours of training prior to being on the phones. Honestly the main thing I’ve learnt is that the most important thing to do is listen. We don’t have any magic words to bring people out of depression/suicidal desire but we can offer an ear and unconditional support. Sometimes that’s what people need to take on another day.”

4. Best and worst.

“My best call – New Years eve – a man calls suicidal about where his life is currently. He felt he should be further along. He was a regular so I knew some of his backstory.

I asked him about where his life was last New Years and it was way worse. I got him to tell me about all the things he’d achieved that year and by the time we hung up he was so proud of himself. It was a complete turn around.

Worst call – also New Years eve – psychologist called – they named everything I was doing, thanked me for trying and hung up. I’m pretty sure they followed through. It really affected me and I ended up quitting.”

5. Saving lives.

“I started volunteering this year answering crisis and suicide phone lines.

Honestly it’s taxing. Whenever you pick up the phone and hear that the person on the other end is planning to, mid-attempt, or post-failed attempt, my heart skips a beat.

It’s worth it though. When someone tells you “I think you saved my life today” there’s just no other feeling like it in the world.”

6. From a veteran.

“I have been a crisis counselor for 5 years, with over 1000 conversations. Its hard. I will always remember some nights I worked and I hope the people I talked to are in better places in their lives. But, I am also confident that I was the last one to talk to atleast 2 of those people,.because I think they did complete suicide.

I hope I helped others and I hope they will find peace or happiness.

I also came to realize that although what we do is great, it is a band aid. These people often need therapy or medication and they wont get that in an hour from a crisis line.

I always hated when a person came in and really wanted help that I just was not able to give.

On a positive note, I am in a masters program to be a therapist now. So I will be able to help these people better.”

7. Enjoyed the work.

“Most folks just needed a place to vent and let off steam. I enjoyed the work and loved how the calls evolved from this shit sucks to I’m ok now thanks for listening.”

8. Very humbling.

“I was a volunteer for Samaritans in the UK. Apart from being sad and frustrating,sometimes, I must be honest in that it was the greatest privilege of my life to be the person that my ‘caller’ needed/wanted to talk with. Humbling in the extreme.”

9. Be understanding.

“I volunteered back in undergrad. Most of the time it was frequent callers who were not a danger to themselves or others. They just didn’t have anyone talk to and there was no other service for them. The hotline really is just for people in immediate harm.

We aren’t trained to handle other things like schizophrenia and the like. When people with suicidal thoughts did call in, you really have to empathize and be in their shoes to begin to understand what they are going to and help them out in the moment. Then you connect them to other services.”

10. What they’ve learned from 5,000 calls.

“I am a supervisor at a suicide hotline and have taken close to 5,000 calls. I’m on the phone 16-24 hours a week and the rest on admin, plus being a supervisors to volunteers and employees.

I enjoy the calls. I have very good skills but also understand the limits of our work. I always tell the people who tell me that I saved their life, that they saved their own. I only can work off of what they provide. This is not to blame those who can’t have a productive conversation. They are most likely dealing with a set of life experiences and/or mental health disorders that prevents them from fully engaging.

But we works WITH people not FOR them. I don’t have magic words or a magic wand. We can work on why to live or how to cope for today but it’s only with what they will work off of and provide.

That said, we talk to a lot of very nasty people from the drunk and high, to severe mental illness that causes them to lash out to the just plain nasty. Water off a ducks back.

I largely don’t bring stuff home. I have a 1 year old and a good marriage and that gives my own life tremendous fullness and meaning. I have very good boundaries around my own pain and that of others. That said, after one particularly brutal call that came from outside the US (and only tangentially associated with suicide) I had a bit of a revelation.

If I am going home and crying about horrible shit that people actually have to experience, it’s an indulgence. I think of it as selfishness, to take on their pain when they actually have to go through it. I have the privilege of being sad when they are forced to live with horror. It might not make sense to some but it’s all about boundaries and setting limits around your emotions. Which is something I talk about with callers a good amount. But obviously not in those words.

The admin is brutal. We are 24/7/365 and employee retention is a constant constant issue. Expectations are extremely high and I don’t feel like I can meet them.”

11. Didn’t like the unpredictability.

“The hardest part for me was never knowing, when the phone rang, whether the person on the other end was about to take a handful of pills/on their way to jump off a bridge/sitting there with a gun in front of them, or whether they just needed to talk. I’m the opposite of an adrenaline junkie so I hated that unpredictability.

I’m so grateful that I never had a call end badly. But the fact that there was always that chance was really, really draining.”

12. Doing great work.

“I volunteer weekly once a week from midnight to 6AM.

I am a student, and I am not going to lie and say that I enjoy throwing back a pint of coffee and living the next day in existential blur during classes.

Honestly it gets exhausting. At least half my calls each week are from frequents who use the crisis line as more of a warm line-they call every day to chat about their daily problems. And while I do not resent these people because usually they are alone and struggling with insomnia and severe mental illness, it can be difficult to see any real significance in the time I put in.

BUT there are always calls that remind me why I drag my ass to an empty hospital at ass o clock at night.

These calls are often one timers.

They usually call sobbing, or heaving and they say they don’t know how the line works.

To listen to those people,

To SLOWLY work with them,

To help them knead their own bits of reality back into existance,

To hear sobbing turn in to a few light jokes over the course of an hour,

To hear a light chuckle,

To hear them agree to a plan: therapy, calling a doctor, contacting a rehav center, reschedueling a psychiatrist appointment, calling their mother.. whatever.

To hear hope, and an agreement to go the fuck to sleep because it is 4AM and it is way easier to tackle life’s problems when it isn’t 4AM.

These are the most rewarding feelings in the world.

Knowing that a simple conversation of active listening can give someone the motivation to keep living, makes the deep ass bags under my eyes my new favorite accessory.”

13. All over the board.

“Honestly, I think it’s actually really fun when I get to have actual conversations. I’ve never left a shift in a bad mood. Most people are just really lonely and depressed and need someone to talk to, a bit of encouragement and a brighter perspective on life. The people that are the hardest to talk to are the psychotic callers.

I can tell they’re in a lot of pain and they can barely express it, but it’s obvious they know. They just seem to cope with psychosis, which is really unsettling. The second hardest are the very angry ones, it’s difficult to stay calm and nice when someone is really mad at you for no reason. The third hardest are the disabled and mentally challenged. That shit is sad and hard to talk to.

What works best for all of these is just listening and agreeing that shit sucks, but sticking to the point that suicide is a meaningless option. Directing their attention outside their heads often helps, all of these have usually been stuck thinking very dark stuff. I’ve had a few women with postpartum depression, those conversations are the scariest.

My colleagues are some of the greatest people in the world though, they really makes the whole thing much better! Couldn’t do it alone.”

14. A tough gig.

“I work full time at a crisis line and it’s tough. A normal day for me is about 20 crisis calls and maybe one assessment out in the community. The majority of people who call want some type of help so those aren’t necessarily the hard calls.

It’s the ones that want to inform you that they are about to take their life and want you to tell their families they are sorry. Those calls are all about keeping the person on the line and gathering any information possible to help. Everyone I talk to gets all of my attention and empathy. It can be draining at times but rewarding for those that show appreciation.

Also we get calls that involve individuals who masturbate on the line and say they will kill themselves if we hang up. Those always make me feel violated but I still do my best to help the person.

It’s a tough gig when you’re dealing with people who want to kill themselves or have thoughts to kill others. My heart breaks for every individual who is in crisis and has to call, but I’m also grateful that the person calling trusts me enough to listen to their hardships and provide help.”

That seems to be a very interesting and exhausting job.

Have you ever worked a job where life and death literally hung in the balance?

If so, please talk to us in the comments.