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Update: May 22, 2017 Please see Ultimate Guide to Starting a Crisis Line for a much more comprehensive treatment of this same topic!
Do you want to start your own suicide hotline, crisis line or helpline? This is an extremely ambitious and admirable goal and I admire you for thinking about your community! Thousands of suicide lines listen to millions of people across the globe every year, preventing thousands of suicides and making the world a better place.
While some areas have lots of crisis lines and supports in place, other communities have a complete lack of them. Especially outside of North America, crisis lines can cost money to call, or may not even exist at all.
Most crisis lines are started by volunteers like yourself, who took the task upon them for the good of their communities. Eventually most lines receive some form of funding, but in the beginning they’re often run out of churches and with volunteer labour.
A few of the things you’ll need to start your own crisis line include:
- Office space
- Phone Service
- Helpline Software / Computers
- Crisis Line Training
- Hotline Evaluation
Office Space / Phone Service
These may seem daunting, but they’re not as complicated as they may initially seem. Office space, for instance, is often donated by churches or other community groups for fledgling non-profits. All you really need is an area for taking calls, and an area for performing administrative work. This can be in a single room to start, and could be someone’s house.
Phone service can be expensive, but using VoIP services can help reduce the cost and improve the accessibility to your volunteers. Something to keep in mind is the possibility of doing call forwarding. What this means is that if your volunteers are at home, the calls can be forward to their home or cell phone and they can answer them from there.
Helpline Software / Computers
Initially your helplines can use paper call reports to record information, later switching to a database, or if you can afford it you can subscribe to an online web-based software like iCarol that will give you much more freedom and flexibility.
It may be helpful to get in touch with local crisis lines in your area (or in larger cities) to learn about the way they code calls. This will help you to understand the basics, before you create your own call report that uniquely captures your population.
Crisis Line Training
Crisis line training is probably the most difficult element to starting a crisis line. Working with a neighbouring crisis line to undergo their training is helpful. Additionally, a lot of crisis lines have local mental health professionals work as clinical supervisors until the organization has enough institutional expertise to provide their own.
Tools that can be used to assess crisis line volunteers include the Suicide Intervention Response Inventory (SIRI) or the Crisis Center Discrimination Index (CIDI). Suicide risk assessments are also an important element of starting a crisis line because you’ll need to respond in an effective and reliable method for determining a caller’s suicide risk.
Some suicide risk assessment tools. include the CPR Model (Current Risk, Previous Exposure, Resources), the DCIB (Desire, Capability, Intent, Buffers) Model and the NGASR (Nurse’s Global Assessment of Suicide Risk.)
Evaluating your hotline is an important element of operating it. If you ever want to receive funding, you need to show that your line is actually beneficial.
This can be as simple as establishing standards for your volunteers (e.g. all volunteers will undertake a 40 hour training session, all volunteers will fill out detailed call reports with outcomes measures, etc.) or as complex as having a silent monitoring system to allow supervisors to listen to calls or research where callers are contacted afterwards to find out their experiences.