Ultimate Guide to Starting a Crisis Line

Introduction

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.

Choosing a Population and Coverage Area

You likely know this information before you begin, but it’s important to clearly define your population and coverage (or catchment) area as you work on your crisis line. You might choose to create your crisis line based on a specific age range (such as the Kids Help Phone for those 0-25), subject area (like the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network [RAINN]), geographic region (like Tennessee Statewide Mental Health Crisis Line) or job status such as the Veterans Crisis Line.

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.

Blended Model

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.

Distress Line

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.

Crisis Line

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.

Staffing Volume

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
  • Confidentiality
  • 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

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.

Data Destruction

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.

Volunteer Recruitment

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.

Volunteer Screening

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.

Volunteer Interviewing

See also: Interviewing on a Suicide Hotline

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

See also: Crisis Hotline Training Curriculum

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
  • Events Calendar
  • News

And a variety of other features, all designed with confidential helplines in mind.

Outcomes Measurement and Evaluation

See also: Methods of Evaluating Helplines and Hotlines

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.

Conclusion

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.

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