Professional Development for Helpline Workers

As helpline workers, one of the most important duties we have outside of our actual work on the lines is to continue regular training. Training can help reinforce existing skills in areas such as emotional support, suicide risk assessment and crisis intervention, but also teach you skills in areas you may not have experience in such as working with youth, mental illness, self-injury and others.

Depending on your helpline’s resources, you may or may not have access to a large body of training beyond your organization’s initial training for new workers. At my centre, for instance, volunteers have access to the following:

  • Distress Centres Ontario Learning Forum Webinars on 35+ subjects
  • Twice-yearly Volunteer Education Days offering certification in subjects such as understanding sexual abuse, working with people who have dementia and borderline personality disorder
  • Regular sessions of Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training
  • In-Service Trainings at Team Meetings four times a year

While my Centre has a lot of training on offer, other organizations may offer no training at all. Whether you are a helpline worker looking to develop your skills on an individual basis or an organization looking to boost your worker’s competencies, I hope you find the following resources helpful.

Identify Available Resources

There are a number of choices for training. Depending on your location, many community organizations provide education as part of their service offerings. These are sessions of 1-8 hours, provided at low or no cost and can often make for effective in-service training materials.

There are also a number of professional/paid trainings which can help give your workers confidence in the areas of suicide assessment and mental health. They include:

LivingWorks Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST)

ASIST is a first course in suicide intervention. ASIST is light on suicide risk assessment, instead focusing the majority of time on the intervention piece after you’ve asked an individual if they are suicidal and you have gotten a “yes” answer – although a bit of time is dedicated to building rapport and comfort to encouraging the potentially suicidal person to open up to the helper.

ASIST is two days long and costs between $100 and $250 depending on the agency you get it at, and the T4T (Training for Trainers) course costs about $5,000 after hotel and other expenses are taken into account.

LivingWorks suicideCare

The suicideCare course is an advanced course in suicide case management. In contrast to ASIST which is designed for the general public, suicideCare is designed for helping professionals including social workers/social service workers, Psychologists, and other mental health workers.

It is described by LivingWorks as “[helping] to develop suicide-specific clinical competencies beyond suicide first aid, including performing a comprehensive risk assessment and negotiating an appropriate help strategy.”

suicideCare teaches workers how to use the Suicide Intervention Response Inventory (SIRI) to judge their initial suicide helping skills, before continuing on to suicide risk assessment and case management. suicideCare differentiates between external events causing suicidality that may require case management, and internal events that may require counselling or therapy.

suicideCare costs $150 – $250 and may be difficult to find; I had to go to a hospital several hours of the way in order to find an organization delivering it.

QPR Institute – Online Counseling and Suicide Intervention Specialist (OCSIS)

The OCSIS certification is better covered in my full article on that training, but in short it is a training on how to provide online crisis chat and suicide assessment and intervention through a text-based environment. It is priced at $200 and an excellent value for the money, although perhaps not as useful as it could be for more experienced helpers.

QPR Institute – QPR Gatekeeper Training

The QPR Gatekeeper Training is an inexpensive, limited time (~1 hour) online course that can be used to teach basic suicide awareness. This course is similar to the ASIST safeTalk training which is 3 hours long and often costs similar (between $30 and $75 dollars.)

Online Certificates

Finally, there are a number of online certificate courses that you can take advantage of. The ones listed below are free.

Helpline Direct Service

Counseling on Access to Lethal Means (CALM) – The CALM course discusses statistics on suicide methods, as well as how to bring this conversation up to clients in a counselling situation. It is especially valuable for working with adolescents and teenagers, who are more prone to impulsive suicidal actions.

Domestic Violence Risk Assessment and Management – Learn the skills to identify and assess intimate partner violence and how to intervene to keep someone safe. A 3-hour self-study online course, free from Western University in London, Canada.

Living Hope Bereavement Support – This course is offered free by the Salvation Army of Australia, and in their words “all aspects of suicide bereavement in order to equip caregivers to support individuals and families through the devastating experience of losing a loved one by suicide“

Fundamentals of Childhood and Youth Studies – This course is an introduction to developmental psychology which can be a good foundation for further study in topics related to children’s mental health.

7 Cups of Tea Online Training – 7 Cups of Tea is an online platform connecting trained active listeners and individuals in need of emotional support chat. New active listeners can get started in about an hour, and there are nearly 30 additional certificates covering topics like Anxiety, Depression, and Self-Injury that volunteers (called “Listeners”) can take part in.

Columbia Suicide Severity Rating Scale (C-SRSS) – The Columbia Suicide Severity Rating Scale is an evidence-based tool for assessing and documenting a risk assessment. You receive a certificate of completion when you are done the 1-hour training.

Responding to Domestic Violence in Clinical Settings – The Ontario Government has produced this training (focused on female victims/survivors) of domestic violence, designed for social workers, physicians and other frontline workers.

Addressing Past Sexual Assault in Clinical Settings – This training by Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, Ontario is focused on providing front-line support to women who have previously experienced sexual assault.

Helpline Management

A number of courses are provided by the Suicide Prevention Resource Centre (SPRC). They are well researched and very user friendly. These links will take you directly to the descriptions provided by the SPRC.

Cite this article as: MacDonald, D.K., (2015), "Professional Development for Helpline Workers," retrieved on December 8, 2022 from

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