Starting a Crisis Line or Hotline

Introduction

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.)

Helpline Evaluation

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.

Cite this article as: MacDonald, D.K., (2016), "Starting a Crisis Line or Hotline," retrieved on July 21, 2017 from http://dustinkmacdonald.com/starting-crisis-line-hotline/.

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14 thoughts on “Starting a Crisis Line or Hotline

  1. I have dealt with depression, anxiety, and panic disorder. Also I have tried to take my own life. I’m here to help you get past all of that by talking to you and giving you a person to vent to that will truly listen and help you on your journey to be happy.

    1. Thanks for the comment Donny. You may find volunteering with your local crisis line or even starting your own if none exists in your community very rewarding! Let me know how it goes.

  2. Wonderful to find your site — this came up when I Googled “how to start a local hotline” — & I’m curious to know more about setting up local phonelines that work as dispatch lines more than as hotlines. Any thoughts or resources that you can e-mail me will be much appreciated. (Perhaps taxi people have expertise in the dispatch aspect aspect, too.) I live in the USA where we need more options than the 911 line; so many situations need reliable, appropriate response that is not 911. So I’m interested in starting local lines that dispatch specialized situational responders.

    1. Hi AW,

      (I emailed you but I’m posting here as well.)

      Most communities have mobile crisis teams that require some form of dispatch. You may find it valuable to contact the one in the nearest big city and talk to them about what their service works like. Unfortunately I don’t have any resources related to dispatch in particular. If you’re looking for information and referral (I&R), I would check out the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems (AIRS).

      I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful,
      Dustin

  3. Thank you for this post Dustin.

    I myself have experienced terrible anxiety and hotlines were a godsend to me. I am between jobs right now and would love to give back and help others, just like I was helped. It seems like quite an investment though. How do you apply for funding and if I was to do this as a career would I be able to take a salary or is this type of business strictly a volunteer, something to do on the side type of deal.

    Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Thanks for your questions Alan!

      Most hotlines started as fully volunteer-run operations in the 1970s but there are very few still in existence that don’t have professional staff (at least in the US and Canada), and new hotlines open every year. Usually they either have a hub and spokes model (with some paid administration and many more volunteers who actually work the phones like at my organization) or a blended model (a number of direct service staff mixed in with volunteers.)

      My knowledge of the funding side comes mainly from Canada, so it may not be as applicable to the US or other countries. Funding to start crisis lines often comes from organizations like United Way, or through municipal or provincial/state funders that are interested in piloting the program.

      Grant applications can be made to those organizations who can pilot your program, and if it shows good outcomes they can agree to fund it on a more permanent basis (in the case of somewhere like United Way), or you can seek more longer-term funder (e.g. if a state funder gave you a 3-year trial grant, you might apply for permanent operational funding.)

      As an example, my crisis line receives funding from our Regional Municipality (equivalent to a county), our local United Way, a large fundraising event we do each year, and then donations throughout the year.

      The admin staff do draw salaries, though like most non-profits the wages are lower than equivalent director or administrative jobs in the corporate world.

      To get started, I would look for the nearest local crisis line and see if they’d be interested in expanding to your area in a satellite operation. If you’re more interested in the direct service (actually staffing the phones), I would try and volunteer for an existing mental health organization or crisis line to get the training and experience.

      Hope this helps! Please let me know if you have any other questions.

  4. Thanks so much for this. In the early stages of starting a call line (not a crisis one though). Do i need to register it as a non-profit first with board of directors before i can operate?
    Thanks

    1. Hi Adwoa,

      Thanks so much for writing. You don’t need to register or incorporate your line as a non-profit, but that will provide you with several advantages:
      – Ability to apply for funding designated for charities/not-for-profits
      – Easier to keep track of funds
      – Preferential rates on software and other expenses
      – If registered as both a not-for-profit and a charity you can give tax receipts to donors
      – Board of Directors can help share the workload

      My crisis line was started in 1970 and incorporated in 1974. You can absolutely get your line up and running first, and then incorporate later once you’ve got a demonstrated history behind you.

      1. Thank you. I’ll launch it and see how it goes from there. I think i’ll tap into other resources like ‘Gofundme’ for now. Scary and exciting new adventure for me but i’m up for it. Thanks again.

    1. Hi Dr. Gandhi,

      You’re right, iCarol is very expensive for an Indian organization. Unfortunately I’m not sure of any services that are geared to that budget. If I come across any I will definitely send them your way!

      Dustin

  5. Hi Dustin,

    I’m totally new to this process and do have a clue where to start! I’ve always wanted to do this because it’s so near and dear to me but unfortunately I lack the funds or knowledge to get started. Is there anyway you could give me sort of a play by play for a lay person on where to begin? I only have a name for my company and that’s about it! Thank you so much if you’re able to provide this information.

    1. Hi Jacina,

      Thank you so much for writing. There’s a lot I could say in a comment, but instead I’d like to write a more comprehensive article that expands on this article – and goes much more in-depth with step-by-steps to starting a crisis line. Expect it on Monday, May 22!

      Dustin

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