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Crisis Hotlines

Find out in what way crisis hotlines assist people with pressing problems.

Crisis hotline volunteers are available to listen and support individuals dealing with a number of personal crisis situations. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Crisis hotline volunteers are available to listen and support individuals dealing with a number of personal crisis situations.

Crisis Hotlines

Crisis hotlines have volunteers available 24 hours a day to answer calls. The hotlines often assist people who are not comfortable seeking help from other emergency or mental health services. Crisis hotlines are generally established to help specific groups, such as domestic violence victims or recovering alcoholics. Volunteers are trained to counsel and recommend services based on the needs of callers. Suicide-prevention hotline volunteers may answer calls that deal with a wide range of personal problems and are equipped to deal with issues relating to anxiety, depression, work and school stress, sexuality and drug use, among others.

The oldest crisis hotline in the United States, established in 1963, is San Francisco Suicide Prevention. Although the hotline once provided strictly suicide prevention services, it now offers general counseling for any crisis. Volunteers at this hotline and other crisis hotlines are also available for friends and family members who are worried about the well-being of a loved one.

National Crisis Hotlines

Many local governments sponsor their own crisis hotlines, but callers may feel more anonymous by calling a national hotline. Although they are calling a national toll-free number, callers should be aware than most national hotlines work in conjunction with crisis centers and may route the calls to the nearest available center. All phone calls to crisis hotlines are confidential. National crisis hotlines are available for those who are affected by suicide, drug and alcohol use, domestic violence, child abuse, youth runaways and sexual abuse.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national crisis hotline funded by a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services grant. The hotline routes calls to more than 130 crisis centers in the United States. Trained volunteers listen to and speak with callers who either need help themselves or are calling about a loved one. The volunteers can offer referrals to local mental health services and are available for follow-up calls. The Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, also funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has a hotline that refers callers to drug and alcohol abuse treatment programs.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline is the only domestic violence crisis hotline in the United States. The hotline receives about 19,500 calls a month and allows callers to remain anonymous. This crisis intervention hotline provides referrals and information to victims of domestic violence as well as to offenders, family members and friends. The hotline has access to more than 5,000 domestic violence shelters and programs in the 50 states, Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands.

Crisis Hotline Volunteers

According to Samaritans, the most important quality of crisis hotline volunteers is the ability to actively listen. Some crisis hotlines use volunteers who can directly relate to callers. For example, a teen suicide-prevention hotline may use only teenaged volunteers, or a substance-abuse hotline could be staffed by recovering addicts. Volunteers must have good communication skills and the ability to speak clearly over the phone. Many hotlines require volunteers to commit to a certain number of hours in order to maintain the hotline's 24-hour access for callers.

Crisis hotline volunteers who are beginning a training program should expect to learn active listening skills, crisis management, computer skills and hotline procedures.

Effectiveness of Crisis Hotlines

According to the Oregon Department of Health Youth Suicide Prevention Program, teens prefer to seek help from a crisis hotline rather than a mental health center, particularly if the hotline is specifically designated for youth callers and the volunteers are peers. Suicide-prevention hotlines have been associated with a decrease in suicide rates among white females who are younger than 25, the demographic most likely to use a crisis hotline.

However, according to the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center, only one study supports the conclusion that crisis hotlines contribute to a decrease in suicide rates. Because of the anonymity associated with crisis hotlines, it can be difficult for researchers to obtain a true sample, and the studies that have been conducted have examined the correlation between the number of crisis hotlines and centers and suicide rates. The studies do not conclusively state whether the existence of crisis hotlines increase or decrease suicide rates.

Crisis hotlines are an effective method for obtaining information, such as referrals to local services. The hotlines also serve as a community resource for government and law enforcement agencies and educators. Advocates are available to answer questions from the general public, government officials and law enforcement agencies.

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