On October 31st I had the opportunity to deliver a presentation on youth suicide to the Sigourney Kiwanis. Kiwanis is a service organization that works with youth. This was a wonderful, active group that I enjoyed having the opportunity to speak with.
I’ve expanded on the point-form presentation that I left participants with, if you’re interested in reading more.
Suicide in Iowa
According to the Iowa Department of Public Health (Fleig, 2018) there were 478 suicide deaths in Iowa in 2018 including 39 teenagers. This is a large increase over the 2016 data kept by the CDC. 478 deaths means someone dies every 18 hours.
Anything that overwhelms someone’s coping and makes them feel hopeless may lead to suicidal behavior. Examples include:
Struggling in school
Anxiety or depression
Being a victim or survivor of abuse (physical, emotional, sexual)
Being a child of a parent who is struggling with substance abuse
Suicide Warning Signs
Warning signs are signs that a suicide attempt may be imminent. They include:
Giving away prized possessions
Talking about death
An unexpected peace or calm after a significant struggle (because the person has made the decision to attempt suicide)
Protective Factors Against Suicide
Protective factors are those things that help keep us safe from suicide or buffer us from suicide.
Parental and Non-Parental Connectedness (trusted adults)
Involvement in Sports
Strong mental health / wellness
How You Can Help
Recognize Statements of Lethality
Also called statements of finality or invitations – invitations to ask about suicide – statements of lethality let us know that someone might be struggling with suicide. Statements of lethality include:
I can’t go on
I can’t do it anymore
I wish I was dead
I’m at the end of my rope
Ask Clearly About Suicide
You will not put the idea in the person’s head if you ask them about suicide. What you will do is help reduce the isolation and loneliness that person is feeling and reduce the intensity of those suicidal thoughts.
Limit Access to Lethal Means
Limiting access to lethal means, by securing firearms or locking up pills is an important part of safety planning with a vulnerable youth.
Take Intent Seriously
Additionally, take suicidal intent seriously. If a teenager overdoses on a harmless product like melatonin that they believe will hurt them, treat that like a serious suicide attempt.
Recognize Self-Injury is Different from Suicide
Recognize that non-suicidal self-injury (cutting) is separate from suicidal behavior and is usually a coping strategy rather than a means to an end.
Suicide Risk Assessment (CPR Model)
If someone has indicated that they are struggling with suicide, I want to know their current plan, their previous exposure to suicide and their resources/lack of resources.
Current Plan of Suicide
The more detailed their plan, the higher the risk level. Do they have access to the plan? Do they know when or where they want to carry out the plan? We know that taking away those means (e.g. securing the pills), in most cases does not cause an individual to try a different method. Instead, they step back and reconsider their suicide plan.
Previous Exposure to Suicide
Have they attempted before? If so, what’s different now? What’s changed? And have they ever lost someone close to them to suicide? If they have this increases their own risk for suicide.
Lack of Resources or Supports
A lack of resources like friends, family or counselling is one of the most significant risk factors for suicide.
Really Simple Suicide Intervention
If the youth can keep themselves safe today, tonight, tomorrow – then I’m okay with that. I can make an appointment for a counsellor or put other supports in place. If that youth can’t, then I’m going to call 911 or get them to the hospital for some emergency supports.
How Communities Can Help
Communities can form a Youth Suicide Prevention Action Group (YSP), this is a group that brings together members from different sectors like education, mental health, faith and law enforcement to work on resources to help reduce youth suicide.
Implementing an evidence-based program like Yellow Ribbon can help.
Hope for the Future
Senate File 2113 signed in March, requires teachers to get suicide awareness trained
(1 hour of Gatekeeper Training)
70% of those who attempt suicide and live will never make a second attempt because they get the help that they need. (Owens, Horrocks & House, 2002)
Elnour, A.A. & Harrison, J. (2008) Lethality of suicide methods. Journal of Injury Prevention. 14(1). 39-45. doi: 10.1136/ip.2007.016246.
Fleig, S. (2018, Oct 29) Following historically high suicide rates, Iowa schools become mental health ‘gatekeepers’. The Des Moines Register.
Owens, D., Horrocks, J. & House, A. (2002) Fatal and non-fatal repetition of self-harm: systematic review. British Journal of Psychiatry. 181. 193-199.
Schwartz-Lifshitz, M., Zalsman, G., Giner, L., & Oquendo, M. A. (2012). Can we really prevent suicide?. Current psychiatry reports, 14(6), 624-33.
Spicer, R. S., & Miller, T. R. (2000). Suicide acts in 8 states: incidence and case fatality rates by demographics and method. American journal of public health, 90(12), 1885-91.
Today I had the opportunity to attend the Suicide to Hope Workshop offered by LivingWorks. This course is a complete overhaul of the suicideCare Workshop that was previously offered by LivingWorks. The seminar takes 8 hours, and includes a participant workshop (like ASIST) and also some handouts that can be used with clients. The purpose of Suicide to Hope is to provide long-term suicide prevention work after the suicide crisis is over and immediate safety is secured.
Pathway to Hope
The key to the Suicide to Hope model is the Pathway to Hope or PaTH. There are three phases (Understanding, Planning and Implementing) and six tasks. These six tasks are:
The purpose of the workshop involves understanding how to do this, moving through each phase. In contrast to the old suicideCare workshop, Suicide To Hope is much more concrete. The goal is to identify the “stuckness” – the elements that an individual was having trouble moving through in order to reduce their suicidality going forward.
Prior to attending the workshop some pre-reading on the theoretical and empirical underpinnings of the worksheet. Once the workshop starts, registration is completed and participants are directed to a Helper Qualities worksheet. This sheet contains 20 values like “Belief in suicide recovery”, “Courage to face the pain” and “Tolerance for risk.” These qualities are looked at throughout the workshop.
Next is a review of the workshop and the five principles of hope creation. These five principles are ways in which a client can experience growth and recovery. They include:
Essentially these principles mean that the experience of surviving suicidal thoughts or suicide attempts may represent an opportunity for growth. Ensuring a client’s safety will ensure they’re in the right frame to begin recovery and growth work. Respect for the client is key to building a strong helping relationship with them. Self-growth refers to “walking the talk”, and being able to be true to yourself. The final principle involves being careful to apply the model and not oversimplifying or forgetting client’s uniqueness.
The Three Phases are reviewed, and video illustrations are included throughout. These include some short clips demonstrating individuals who are safe but still suicidal, followed by clips of their recovery and a 25 minute single-take demo to really cement the learning.
A short roleplay experience in a triad helps individuals become more comfortable with the variety of tools that are provided (such as the questions to ask and the worksheets that are available.)
The ABCs of Safety
One of the really useful elements is a sheet titled “The ABCs of Safety”, which is an excerpt from the Suicide to Hope Planning Tool provided to workshop participants. This includes some checkboxes under the headings “I am ready to start R&G work”, “I know how to keep myself safe while doing R&G work” and “I know how we will work together.” These elements ensure that clients entering into recovery work have a safety plan and understand informed consent elements related to the treatment or service provision they will be receiving.
I found the Suicide to Hope workshop a vast improvement over the old version. The materials would be extremely useful for case managers, counsellors, psychologists, social workers, therapists and other professionals that are providing support to individuals struggling with suicide.
To learn more about Suicide to Hope you can read about it on LivingWorks’ website or find available training opportunities here.
For those of you who don’t use it, the website Quora is an absolute goldmine for information on a wide variety of topics. It allows you to ask and answer questions by individuals who all use their real names, and who have to identify their area of expertise (their reason for knowing the answer.)
One of the questions asked was “What are some striking facts or figures about suicide?” My answer is the basis for this post. I identify a number of suicide facts and figures with citations. These may make useful additions to presentations that you do in the future.
We know that in the United States, about 50% of suicide deaths are by firearm (CDC, 2016). This accounts for the startling statistic that 60% of people who attempt suicide will die on their first attempt (Bostwick, et. al., 2016)
Of those that survive, 70% of those who live will never go on to have a second attempt, hopefully because they get the help that they need. About 23% will go on to attempt again (sometimes repeatedly) and live, while 7% will die on a future attempt. (Owens, Horrocks & House, 2002)
Gun owners in particular at much higher risk of suicide. We know that gun owners are 57 times more likely to die by suicide within 7 days of their purchase (likely because they purchased it specifically intent on suicide), and 7 times more likely within the first year as non-gun-owners. (Wintermule, et. al., 1999)
Depending on the type of gun and other variables, 85-98% of firearm suicide attempts will end in death, while only about 2% of overdoses will end in death. (Elnour & Harrison, 2008).
Women attempt suicide about 3 times as frequently as men do (Vijayakumar, 2015) but tend to die 3 times more frequently (Varnik, 2012) chiefly because of their use of more lethal methods like firearm and hanging, when compared to women who more commonly use overdose.
Suicide is most common in the middle ages, accounting for 54% of suicides in Canada (Statistics Canada, 2013) and 51% of suicides in the United States (CDC, 2011).
It’s been suggested that up to 90% of those who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental illness (Bertole & Fleischmann, 2002). Although this figure has been challenged because it is based on psychiatric autopsies (reviews with those left behind) that might be vulnerable to bias, it is common enough to be valuable.
Did I miss any suicide facts and figures that you’d like to see? Let me know and I’ll update the article. Thanks all!
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) [Online]. (2013, 2011) National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, CDC (producer). Available from http://www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars/index.html
There are a variety of models of suicidal behaviour. These models attempt to map suicidal behaviour or put it into boxes so that a helping professional can better understand how suicidal behaviour forms and how it can be treated and resolved. This Biopsychosocial Model comes from Kumar, U. & Mandal, M.K. (2010).
The model is first presented in textual format, followed by an image, and then an explanation.
Biological, Environmental and Event factors feed into a Psychological Process. This psychological process leads to the development or exacerbation of a mental health issue and to suicidal behaviour. On a cognitive level, this affects how the individual thinks and feels about the past, present and future.
Biological Influences in Suicide
There are a number of biological factors that can increase the risk of suicide which have been reviewed by Pandey (2013). These include genetic predisposition of suicidal behaviour (Turecki, 2001) which may be related to increased prevalence of impulsiveness and aggressiveness.
5HT receptors are receptors in the brain that are activated by the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin plays an important role in mood (Yohn, Guerges & Samuels, 2017), appetite and eating (Sharma & Sharma, 2012), sleep, memory and sexual function. Improperly functioning 5HT receptors may play a role both in depression and in suicidal behavior.
It has been well-documented that teens and adolescents are more impulsive than adults as their brains continue to develop up to age 25 (Kasen, Cohen & Chen, 2011) and this can increase their risk of suicide and homicide. (Glick, 2015) Witt et. al. (2008) examines this through the lens of the Interpersonal Theory of Suicide – suggesting that impulsive individuals are more likely to have acquired capability (through being exposed to pain), which is one of the 3 key elements of that Theory of Suicide.
Environmental Influences in Suicide
Environmental influences on suicidal behaviour include literal environmental factors like sunlight exposure and situational factors like presence of abuse, history of suicide attempts and other items that are commonly known as suicide risk factors.
Souêtre et. al. (1990) found that decreased sunlight exposure and lowered temperature was linked to increased risk of suicide. This may explain the high rate of suicide in Nordic and Scandinavian countries that lack many of the other risk factors for suicide. Lam et. al. (1999) found that light therapy decreased suicidal ideation in a population of women who struggled with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
Evans, Owens & Marsh (2005) found that an external locus of control (believing that life “happens to one” rather than one having control over their life) was associated with an increased risk of suicide in adolescents. This likely holds true in adults as well.
Other risk factors for suicide include the American Association of Suicidology’s IS PATH WARM mnemonic:
Ideation (thoughts of suicide)
Trapped (a feeling of being trapped)
Withdrawal (from others)
Event Influences in Suicide
Sometimes an event occurs in someone’s life that is so devastating that it may lead to suicide. For instance, relational changes and other interpersonal issues (such as a loss of a relationship or fights with a friend) commonly precede a suicide attempt (Yen et. al., 2005; Bagge, Glenn & Lee, 2013; Conner, et. al., 2012)
In addition to interpersonal events as described above, events that may lead to suicidal behaviour include being arrested, charged or sentenced with a crime (Cooper, Appleby & Amos, 2002). Zhang & Ma (2012) also found this in a Chinese sample of suicide attempters, with the most common stressful life events preceding suicide involving family/home, hospital/health and marriage/love.
It’s clear that the biopsychosocial model of suicide has a fair amount of support for its component parts. It may be difficult to apply the Biopsychosocial Model directly in a clinical or therapeutic context. For that reason, other models may be preferred for intervention purposes.
Bagge, C. L., Glenn, C. R., & Lee, H. (2013). Quantifying the impact of recent negative life events on suicide attempts. Journal Of Abnormal Psychology, 122(2), 359-368. doi:10.1037/a0030371
Conner, K. R., Houston, R. J., Swogger, M. T., Conwell, Y., You, S., He, H., & … Duberstein, P. R. (2012). Stressful life events and suicidal behavior in adults with alcohol use disorders: Role of event severity, timing, and type. Drug & Alcohol Dependence, 120(1-3), 155-161. doi:10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2011.07.013
Cooper, J., Appleby, L., & Amos, T. (2002). Life events preceding suicide by young people. Social Psychiatry & Psychiatric Epidemiology, 37(6), 271.
Evans, W. P., Owens, P., & Marsh, S. C. (2005). Environmental Factors, Locus of Control, and Adolescent Suicide Risk. Child & Adolescent Social Work Journal, 22(3/4), 301-319. doi:10.1007/s10560-005-0013-x
Glick, A. R. (2015). The role of serotonin in impulsive aggression, suicide, and homicide in adolescents and adults: a literature review. International Journal Of Adolescent Medicine And Health, (2), 143. doi:10.1515/ijamh-2015-5005
Kasen, S., Cohen, P., & Chen, H. (2011). Developmental course of impulsivity and capability from age 10 to age 25 as related to trajectory of suicide attempt in a community cohort. Suicide And Life-Threatening Behavior, (2), 180.
Kumar, U & Mandal, M.K. (2010). Suicidal Behavior: Assessment of People-at-Risk. New Delhi, India: SAGE Publications.
Lam, R. W., Carter, D., Misri, S., Kuan, A. J., Yatham, L. N., & Zis, A. P. (1999). A controlled study of light therapy in women with late luteal phase dysphoric disorder. Psychiatry Research, 86185-192. doi:10.1016/S0165-1781(99)00043-8
Pandey, G. N. (2013). Biological basis of suicide and suicidal behavior. Bipolar Disorders, 15(5), 524-541. doi:10.1111/bdi.12089
Sharma, S., & Sharma, J. (2012). Regulation of Appetite: Role of Serotonin and Hypothalamus. Iranian Journal Of Pharmacology & Therapeutics, 11(2), 73-79.
Souêtre, E., Wehr, T.A., Douillet, P. & Darcourt, G. (1990) Influence of environmental factors on suicidal behavior. Psychiatry Research. 32(3):253-63.
Turecki, G. (2001). Suicidal behavior: is there a genetic predisposition?. Bipolar Disorders, 3(6), 335-349.
Witte, T. K., Merrill, K. A., Stellrecht, N. E., Bernert, R. A., Hollar, D. L., Schatschneider, C., & Joiner, J. E. (2008). Research report: “Impulsive” youth suicide attempters are not necessarily all that impulsive. Journal Of Affective Disorders, 107107-116. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2007.08.010
Yen, S., Pagano, M. E., Shea, M. T., Grilo, C. M., Gunderson, J. G., Skodol, A. E., & … Zanarini, M. C. (2005). Recent Life Events Preceding Suicide Attempts in a Personality Disorder Sample: Findings From the Collaborative Longitudinal Personality Disorders Study. Journal Of Consulting And Clinical Psychology, 73(1), 99-105. doi:10.1037/0022-006X.73.1.99
Yohn, C. N., Gergues, M. M., & Samuels, B. A. (2017). The role of 5-HT receptors in depression. Molecular Brain, 101-12. doi:10.1186/s13041-017-0306-y
Zhang, J., & Ma, Z. (2012). Research report: Patterns of life events preceding the suicide in rural young Chinese: A case control study. Journal Of Affective Disorders, 140161-167. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2012.01.010
Following up on my previous post Starting a Crisis Line or Hotline, I had some reader commentary asking about some more specific nuts and bolts for someone who is passionate and interested in starting a crisis line, hotline or helpline but doesn’t really know where to begin. Obviously, while it is best to bring in experienced individuals sometimes they simply aren’t available. For the purpose of this guide, I will describe the steps to create a fictional crisis line, the Southeast Iowa Crisis Center (SEICC), or “Seek.”
Throughout this article, I use “crisis line”, “helpline” and other terms interchangeably, except in the section “Deciding on Type of Service Provided” where I distinguish between the two.
Staffing a Steering Committee
The first step will be to decide on and form a Steering Committee. This will be a group of individuals who will be responsible for helping to bring your vision of a crisis line to life. Too few people and you may feel overwhelmed. Too many and you risk decision paralysis – not being able to make decisions because of too many disagreements. Perhaps 4-6 people is the optimal size for a Steering Committee.
If (or when) you form a nonprofit, you’ll need a Board of Directors. The members of your Steering Committee often make a suitable Board. Their tasks will include all of the items discussed below.
Some funders will only fund certain populations or programs but it’s important that you not get into the business of chasing funding by going against your mission – this could lead to you losing your nonprofit status or losing trust among your supporters.
Identifying Mission and Vision
The next step to starting a nonprofit or a new product is to define what you wish to create. An organization’s mission statement is short and punchy, describing what they do. This can be a tagline or slogan, but doesn’t have to be. Distress Centre Durham‘s mission statement is “Helping people in distress to cope.”
Vision is more long-term and describes an outcome. An example vision statement for Habitat for Humanity is “A world where everyone has a decent place to live.” You don’t necessarily have to publicize your visioning statement but your mission and vision will determine whether activities that you pursue are within your organization’s purview.
SEICC’s mission will be “Keeping Iowans safe with 24/7 emotional support”, while the vision will be “Nobody suffers alone.”
Parkinson’s Law of Triviality
There is a concept in management called Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. Essentially it states that organizations spend disproportionate amounts of time on easy-to-grasp issues while neglecting more important but more difficult ones. This is an important trap to avoid when considering things like your organization’s logo, or other elements that are pretty minor in the grand scheme of things.
Picking a Staffing Model
At this stage, you have identified a group of individuals that are going to help you build your crisis line. You’ve also decided on a mission and a vision. You need to decide whether you will use a model of volunteers supported by paid staff, a blended model, or all paid staff. There are pros and cons to each approach.
Volunteers, Staff Supported
Advantages of the volunteers-supported-by-staff model include it is easy to start and individuals can self-select as one or the other (either applying for a staff position in administration or a volunteer position providing direct service.) One downside to this model is that initially your administrative staff will probably have to cover shifts on the helpline until you all get experienced, and that it can be hard to ensure 100% coverage if your service gets popular.
A blended model involves a mix of paid staff and volunteers. This is a more common model in the United States than in Canada, which tends to use purely volunteers. The advantages are that you can attract a more credentialed staff who might hold multiple roles (e.g. a helpline manager might be responsible for 20 hours of helpline work and 20 hours of administration.)
The downsides are that this can make your volunteers uncomfortable, and increase the expenses you need to get your crisis line off the ground.
All Paid Staff
Using all paid staff is an emerging crisis line model. Some helplines like the Veteran’s Crisis Line have used this model for many years. With this model, you can ensure 100% coverage (because your staff are paid to be in the chair), but this will be very expensive. Although research shows that paying crisis line workers does not diminish their importance, it may make it harder for your callers to trust that they’re really interested in listening.
This can also increase the rate of burnout because paid workers are providing many more hours of support each week or month versus a volunteer.
Deciding on Type of Support Provided
It’s important to decide if you’re going to be a distress line, a crisis line, or both. Some organizations will break their services into two distinct phone numbers and lines, with specific caller concerns, while many others (like Distress Centre Durham) will provide all forms of support.
Despite the use of the name “distress line” or “crisis line”, an organization may take all types of calls. You’ll need to read the explanation of the service provided before making a decision about whether or not an agency really does limit or parcel out their support.
A distress line focuses on individuals who are struggling and need to talk to someone but who can still cope. Someone in distress can still think about potential solutions to their problem, is not struggling with high-risk suicide thoughts, and does not need safety planning.
A crisis line provides support to individuals who are struggling with high-risk suicide, crisis situations (where they can’t think of what to do), or who are otherwise unsafe. Many crisis lines have access to mobile crisis units, may call ambulances to take callers to hospitals or otherwise access more intensive support.
Hours of Operation
Deciding on the hours of operations for a crisis line is an important element. Many crisis lines started as 4-hours a day, 7 days a week operations before moving to 12 or 24 hours. Other organizations started immediately with 24 hours.
You’ll need to calculate the amount of staff you need for your crisis line (whether paid or unpaid) once you’ve decided on your hours of operation. One way to do this is the Erlang C formulas that are used to staff call centres (which you can fill with dummy data based on crisis lines in other regions.)
If you’re paying your staff, this will be easier. It might be easier to start small and then build up as your service gets more well known and well supported.
Choosing a Location
Choosing a location for a new crisis line (or any nonprofit really) will depend most commonly on your finances. Many organizations get cheap or free space in an organization like a church starting off, before moving to an office. If you’re really tight on space you might even be able to set up in a large office in someone’s home.
The keys to choosing a location will include availability, security, convenience, and price. While price is obvious, I’ll speak about the others.
One advantage of a stand-alone building is you have 24/7 access to it. If you’re in another type of location you may find it difficult or impossible to access after-hours, which can complicate things. Security is also a factor, in that if you’re not advertising your crisis line location it shouldn’t be obvious where you’re located. While a far-away location might seem to be ideal for security, it complicates accessibility (distance travelled) for your volunteers and limits convenience.
Forming a Nonprofit (or not)
Choosing whether to incorporate is a challenging decision to make. Incorporation provides you with benefits like protection of your assets, tax exempt status (once you’re registered as a charity) and the ability to pursue formal funding. The downsides are that it takes work to form and maintain the nonprofit status.
Finding Sources of Funding
Initial sources of funding may come from your Steering Committee but eventually you’ll need to explore outside sources. When your crisis line has operated for 1-2 years you’ll likely be eligible to apply for formal funding grants such as those at the local, state and federal levels.
Other sources include corporate sponsorship, fundraising events and direct donations.
Developing Policies and Procedures
Policies and procedures are important for ensuring that your volunteers respond in a consistent way. Examples of policies and procedures that you may wish to develop:
Call Trace and Intervention
Callers as Volunteers
Recruitment (Criminal Record Check)
Victims of Abuse (Reporting Child Abuse)
Call Trace and Intervention
A Call Trace and Intervention policy will describe under what circumstances you will initiate call trace (to try and find an individual’s address or other identifying information) and under what circumstances you will call police/911 for Active Rescue. Some crisis lines will never initiate Active Rescue, for instance the UK Samaritans, unless the caller requests it. Many crisis lines will always err on the side of caution.
Call Trace will depend on the technology available to your crisis line but may include use of 411 (for non-blocked numbers) or contacting 911 directly to pass available information to them.
Helplines will often describe their intervention policy on the lines as something to the effect of, “We only intervene in cases of imminent homicide, suicide, or disclose of child abuse.”
Callers as Volunteers
Callers to your helpline will usually result in the creation of a call report or other record of that conversation. If you recruit volunteers from the same area that you take calls from, it’s possible that someone who has previously called your line may become a volunteer – and therefore be able to read their call report.
For that reason, you may require that volunteers to your helpline must have not used your service in the amount of time that records are retained. For instance, at Distress Centre Durham call reports are retained for one year so volunteers must not have used the service in that time in order to be eligible.
Confidentiality is at the core of emotional support. Creating a safe environment is key to helping callers discuss their issues openly. Confidentiality means that volunteers who disclose information about callers outside of the crisis line or make contact with them outside of the line can be dismissed.
Examples of violations of confidentiality:
Talking about callers to your friends or family
Posting information about callers on social media
Giving information from the crisis line to another agency without that caller’s permission
It’s important to establish a very high degree of confidentiality or else callers will quickly lose trust in the helpline.
A data destruction policy includes information on when and how you’ll destroy data that you’ve collected, such as via call reports or caller profiles. The most important element is to include a timeline for how frequently you’ll destroy data – such as on a quarterly basis for data that is more than 12 months old.
Recruitment (Criminal Record Check)
A Criminal Record Check (CRC), known by other names like a Police Record Check (PRC) or a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) Check describes a person’s record of criminal offenses. Many jursidictions include an option specifically for crimes against vulnerable individuals like children or seniors.
Many crisis lines will limit their volunteers only to those who have no criminal record, while some will allow – with approval – individuals who have certain types of non-violent offenses from many years ago.
Victims of Abuse
Nonprofit organizations are often legally required to report abuse, like child abuse or elder abuse. A policy explaining this will help callers better understand when they disclose child abuse, what the volunteer will do. In many crisis lines this means calling Child Protective Services (CPS) or a similar agency (like Children’s Aid Society in Ontario.)
You may also wish to include a statement about how your helpline takes a non-judgemental stance on abuse – not encouraging individuals to leave unless they’re ready to leave on their own.
Volunteers in Counselling or Therapy
Helpline work can be demanding and burnout can be a challenge. For this reason, it’s important to know when your volunteers are undergoing counselling or therapy. One way in which to do this is to have volunteers self-identify if they are receiving counselling or therapy and then giving them a letter to give to their therapist. That clinician will simply sign asserting that the work will not be harmful, and that can be filed away.
Recruiting volunteers will depend on your local community. In some communities, United Way may operate a volunteer board online that you can submit your crisis line to. Universities or colleges may allow you to post flyers or distribute information to the students.
A good training class will be between 5 and 20 individuals, but recruiting throughout the year will be important for ensuring consistent service delivery.
Screening involves determining if individuals possess the appropriate attitudes to be successful in helpline training. The American Association of Suicidology Crisis Center Certification identifies these attitudinal outcomes that individuals should experience by the conclusion of training:
Acceptance of persons different from oneself, and a non-judgmental response toward sensitive issues (e.g. not discussing suicidal ideation or abortion with a client in terms of its moral rightness or wrongness)
Balanced and realistic attitude toward self in the helper role (e.g. not expecting to “save” all potential suicides by one’s own single effort, or to solve all the problems of the distressed person)
A realistic and humane approach to death, dying, self-destructive behavior and other human issues
Coming to terms with one’s own feelings about death and dying insofar as these feelings might deter one from helping others.
Volunteer screening may include an application form that asks questions about the caller like:
Are there situations or topics (such as abuse or abortion) that may place you in a moral or ethical dillema?
What are your beliefs on suicide?
How do you feel you would talk to someone who is different from yourself?
The screening process does not have to rule out anyone yet, but may be helpful for prepping you on the interview.
The process of the volunteer interview will be to collect more information on the potential volunteer to make sure there is compatibility with your service. For instance, some individuals may only want to work with children or may not want to work with suicide – and your desires for your line may not align with that.
The interview is also an opportunity to see how someone is on the phone, and to help answer more of their questions about what the process looks like.
Volunteer training is the process of teaching a volunteer the core skills that they need to be prepared for the helpline. Rather than reproducing material I’ve written about elsewhere, see the link above. From there you can find posts across my blog that will be useful for building a training program.
Training should run approximately 40 hours, with at least 24 hours of classroom training and 16 hours of supervised “on the phone” training being mentored by a shift supervisor or experienced volunteer before the newly trained volunteer is able to take shifts on their own.
You may find it helpful to bring on a therapist or counsellor to help you develop your initial helpline curriculum, or use a crisis line trainer from an area near you that doesn’t overlap with your catchment area.
Identifying Caller Issues
Caller Issues are the specific issues prevalent in your community that may lead you to develop training modules on them to prepare your volunteers. One example is in college towns where concerns over sexual assault or alcohol and drug abuse may be more prevalent.
The easiest way to do this is with effective helpline management software (see the next section.) With a detailed call report you will be able to pull statistics on exactly what your callers are discussing and this will help you fine-tune your training. Generally, the core elements of emotional support and crisis intervention will be exactly the same.
Helpline Management Software
In order to run a helpline you’ll need some form of helpline management software. I recommend iCarol, which my crisis line has used for several years. iCarol provides all the features you’d expect online helpline software to provide:
Shift Calendar so volunteers can sign up for shifts
Call Reports so volunteers can record details about their conversations
Chatboard for facilitating communication between staff and volunteers
And a variety of other features, all designed with confidential helplines in mind.
Outcomes Measurement and Evaluation describes the things that you will need to do in order to prove that your helpline is effective. One way in which to do this starts with your Basic Training program. Have your volunteers complete a pre and post training survey that includes questions about the perceived value of the training, their ability to display empathy and their understanding of crisis and suicide risk assessment. You’ll see their scores increase, demonstrating the knowledge transfer.
Another way to evaluate a Basic Training program is with a tool like the Suicide Intervention Response Inventory, which has volunteers rate how effective a series of statements are in providing emotional support. Their scores will change throughout training, indicating their increased skill.
On the phone calls themselves, your call reports can include space for Outcomes Measurement. This can include things like, “Callers says they feel better”, “Decreased distress and anxiety”, “Reduced isolation and loneliness.” These outcomes can be used to show what changes your callers experience throughout the call.
Joining Professional Associations
Finally you may wish to join professional associations like the Association of Crisis Workers or Crisis Lines in your area, or other professional groups that provide support to nonprofits. This will help you network, fundraise and attract volunteers to your organization.
As you can see, a lot goes into developing a crisis line – but it is not unmanageable. If you’ve decided to launch a crisis line, let me know in the comments! And please continue to ask questions if you’d like.