The National Suicide Hotline

friendshipDoes this post look familiar? “Would at least three of my Facebook friends please copy and repost? I am doing this to prove that someone is always listening. #SuicideAwareness 1-800-273-8255.” It’s been making the rounds on Facebook lately and it’s heartening to see that many people care about those the incoming government is planning to leave behind. So I mean absolutely no blame or shame with this post. From someone who has attempted to call and use the National Suicide Hotline, you need to know that encouraging people to call it is not the most helpful thing you could be doing. This is a difficult time of year for many people and things are about to get a lot rougher in general in the coming months, but this is why we need to do much more and much different than directing people in mortal pain to talk to a stranger (who may or may not be available anyway).

First, I know the hotline page promises someone will be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but that has not been my experience or the experience of many I know who have needed something like this. Hold times have been up to an hour, if you’re in a position to be able to wait that long. I’ve also experienced and heard of other people experiencing anger from the volunteer when the caller can’t just snap out of it after receiving a few platitudes and “I hear you”s. It’s one thing to say something insensitive and it’s got to be really stressful trying to personally soothe a human you’ve never met. But anger? How is that ever appropriate in this situation?

Second, when you reach such a high level of pain and upset, it may not be that easy for you to talk about it. Yes, there is a “Chat” function online but it rarely works (as in, usually no one is there to respond to a live chat request) and, when it prompts you to leave a message after waiting for again up to or even over an hour, I’ve never had an email message returned.

Third, it may seem caring to encourage someone to “reach out” but talking to a stranger about extremely personal things may not be that easy for some people. Some find it easier to talk to strangers than their friends, sure, but my goodness, people, what are friends for? The expert worship in our culture has led us to believe that the only thing friends have a responsibility to do is call the police (which makes things way worse way more often, especially for people of color) and let the apparent abundance of well-trained therapists and mental-health workers deal with the person’s pain. For anyone who hasn’t spent time struggling with mental or emotional distress, there are two main reasons it’s not so easy to “seek help:” 1) there’s actually a shortage of appropriately trained therapists and of those, it’s very difficult to find a good fit for you (I looked for 15 years – that’s half my life – before finally finding one who has been helpful at all) and 2) the only reason this therapist is able to help is because of the many, many years of experience, which means that the services are very, very expensive (I lost my job in October and wouldn’t be able to afford it without being able to go on my husband’s health insurance). So people who are not “getting help” are not lazy – they’re poor or are unable to find quality help.

This is exactly where friends come in. Instead of pushing off people who are suffering onto “professionals” who may do more harm than good, especially given our current mental-health system disaster, what if we actually shared our hardships with each other? I think it’s time we start building relationships and communities where we take care of each other, where we prioritize taking care of each other, where inconveniencing ourselves for the people we claim to love is the norm, is done with joy and is not seen as an impediment to our busyness but as one of the main reasons we are alive. I know that sounds crazy in individualism-steeped America, but really, how much of what you care about has any point if you’re alone? How much meaning is there in anything if you can’t find human connection in it? If we want to prove actually that someone is always listening, maybe we should be that person, instead of posting a phone number and thinking we’re done with our obligation to each other.

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