My Time As A Volunteer Crisis Counselor

During my freshman year of university, I was at my parent’s house for Thanksgiving. I was in bed on my barely running laptop making my rounds on Tumblr when I stumbled across an ad-like post. Typically, I ignore these and move on but I actually stopped for this one. I was in a depressive pit and the post talked about a fairly new organization called Crisis Text Line. The post talked about all of the things the organization did and helped with and even mentioned the need for new counselors to help out remotely.

I was in university studying computer science at the time so I knew that there was no way they would want me. For whatever reason, I kept reading. The post mentioned how it didn’t matter about your studies, current jobs or anything. As long as you were over 18 years old and wanted to help people, you had a shot. I thought to myself that there was no harm in trying so I sent in an application, had some friends write me recommendations and carried on with my night. The following week, I received a response; I had been accepted. I was asked to schedule what weeks I wanted to start an intensive two-week training course and signed up for the first one.

I spent hours on my laptop completing these training courses, which is a tad ironic as I was too depressed myself to go to classes but had the capacity to do this. I finished all of the training within a week, attended a remote live stream observation for two straight hours, and completed a mock conversation with a professional. I received a certificate stating that I had completed the course and was a certified volunteer counselor.

Crisis Text Line advertisement.

What is Crisis Text Line?

In layman’s terms, think of the Suicide Hotline (1-800-273-8255). Instead of verbally talking to someone, you can just text from your phone. You can have complete anonymity with Crisis Text Line. They are available 24/7 but I’ve personally heard complaints about the wait times. Sadly, there are less and less counselors because it is an incredibly difficult job to do. Crisis Text Line is also only in the United States (741-741) and Canada (868-868) and currently working on getting into the UK.

As a counselor, you are responsible for bringing people back to a cool calm. You are responsible to ask in depth questions and emotionally support that person to your best ability. As a counselor, we also had notes that we had to write about each and every texter in case they were to text back in and the future counselor would have a better idea of what they’ve been going through. These notes included a checklist of problems such as depression, family issues, abuse, etc. We also had to write down what their interests were, what their coping mechanisms were, and general notes on the situation itself along with the date of the conversation.

What did I do?

Me with a sticker Crisis Text Line sent me for Christmas.

Well, I was a volunteer crisis counselor. What this means is that I spoke to people of all age, backgrounds, sexual orientations, etc. We would talk to people on topics such as LGBTQ+ related issues like trouble coming out to parents, general anxiety or depression, homelessness, veterans/soldiers with PTSD, and so much more. Our purpose? To bring someones mental state from that was high to a cool, collected calm.

The misconception that I learned some texters had was that they thought we were like a regular counselor and they could just text us constantly. We had a time limit of how long we were supposed to talk to people and some didn’t really understand that. Of course, it’s nothing against them. Studies showed that the most effective conversations were about 30-45 minutes long, so going over that typically meant that someone was just going in circles.

One of the most helpful things that we could do, in my opinion, was to give references to people. On the remote portal we used to talk to people, we had a section where we could find references for everything. Homeless? We have references to help you find a place in your area. Self harm? We have references for you to not self harm. Need a therapist? We have websites to give you to find one close to where you are.

The organization also gave us “cheat sheets” to help us when we worked, which I printed out and created a counselor binder for myself. Despite the fact that I no longer volunteer for them simply because college has sucked away all of my free time, I still use this handbook in my everyday life. It has a lot of handy tricks for talking to people that are not in the safest mindset.

Conversation Guidelines

Me in my free Crisis Text Line jacket I earned for working for an entire year.

There were four key factors we were encouraged to use while talking to texters: validations, tentafiers, open-ended questions and strength IDs. Validations were used to remind the texter that what they were feeling was completely valid to feel and to create a trusting relationship to allow them to open up. Tentafiers (“You seem to be feeling…” or “I get the impression that…”) were a way of pretty much confirming emotions with the texter to make sure everyone was on the same page. Open-ended questions (questions that cannot simply be used with a “yes” or “no”) allowed for more details on what exactly was going on. Strength IDs (“You’re clearly a strong person because…” or “It sounds like you really care about…”) allows for the texter to feel empowered in a time of weakness.

We also had 5 stages of a conversation to follow. First, we had to establish a rapport, which includes the volunteer introducing themselves and the texter introducing themselves and the basis of the problem. The second thing to do was to identify the problem and explore the problem more in depth. Third, we needed to collaborate with the texter to identify what their goal was. Fourth, problem solve collaboratively. Lastly, end the conversation.

In order to really collaborate on solving the problem, the counselor needed to explore the texter’s individual problem-solving and decision-making skills. Counselors also needed to explore the texter’s support systems, such as family and friends, and community resources, such as school clubs or counselors. Lastly, counselors needed to discuss options for the Action Plan and explore the implications of each option with the texter. Ending the conversation includes recapping the conversation, pointing out the texter’s trengths in a genuine way and reviewing the action plan.

An important thing to note for counselors during the rapport building and problem identification portion was to conduct an imminent risk check and slick as possible. What this means is asking if the texter is suicidal. If they were, asking if they had a plan. If they had a plan, asking if they had the means to fulfill that plan. If they had the means, asking for a timeframe. Depending on the texter and the severity of the risk assessment, it was sometimes necessary to “flag” the conversation for a higher up to get involved in. Personally, I had a texter who had confirmed all four of these questions and very quickly stopped texting in and my supervisor had to alert the authorities to do a check in for their safety. To this day, years later, I still worry if they are okay.

Personal Texter Stories

Famous YouTuber, Markiplier, who did a charity live stream for Crisis Text Line in 2016.

Obviously, we aren’t supposed to talk about specifics and even though I am no longer a volunteer counselor, I will still respect that. These are personal stories that happened many years ago (I worked from December 2015 until the summer of 2018). So these will continue to be anonymous. They are simply stories of people I spoke to long ago. These are also not in order.

The first texter was an older woman. She was over 70 years old and had texted in, apologizing for misspellings as she wasn’t the best at texting. She explained how her adult son was stealing money off of her, despite the fact that she barely had any money herself. It was putting her into a position where she was going to lose her home because she just simply did not have the heart to get him to stop or even tell him what it was doing to her. She came to Crisis Text Line for strength and support.

Mind you, at the time I was just some 18 year old college student. This was something I absolutely could not relate to and felt completely unprepared for it. However, I sat there and listened to her cry to me about her struggles. I validated her and comforted her to the best of my ability while sending her links to websites to help with financial struggles. Being a counselor, we were not allowed to give personal advice such as “If I were you, I would…”, so I really couldn’t offer advice even if I knew what to do. Instead, I gently brought up how it would be in her best interest to talk to her son calmly about what he was doing, so we spent a good 20 minutes making up a game plan for her. At the end of the conversation, she told me how much I had helped and thanked me over and over.

Famous YouTubers, Game Grumps, who held a charity stream for Crisis Text Line.

In a less happy story, I had to help someone that we call a “managed texter.” What this means is that this person was using Crisis Text Line as a daily therapist rather than a once in a while crutch to help with intense emotions. With managed texters, we could only talk for 30 minutes max. These texters were typically very angry, as they did not fully understand that their use of the organization was not what it was intended for. We would have to explain what the new protocol was for them and tell them how much time we had with them.

These managed texters already had a written gameplan from prior counselors so the future counselors would know exactly what was happening and what to talk about. We would pretty much just have to verify that they were safe and review the prior game plan that prior counselors had discussed with them to make sure they were still working. Texters like this were always disheartened and always made me sad, as I wanted to talk to them but the rules I had to follow didn’t allow it.

What not to say to texters

Example of a text one might receive when working as a counselor.

Like I mentioned, we couldn’t give advice such as “If I were you, I would…” The main purpose of counselors was to gently guide the conversation but the texter was ultimately in charge of what was discussed. We also could not use “why” questions, as tone of voice can be easily misinterpreted over text and we did not want to come off as accusing the texter. For example, I could not use phrases such as “Why don’t you just…” We also couldn’t say things such as “You should do…” or “Wouldn’t it be best if…”

Along with not being able to give advice, we were not allowed to openly relate to the texter which was difficult for me personally. I remember a texter who had been going through the exact same struggles I had faced and I couldn’t say anything. The purpose for this is so that we do not let the texter think that we are moving the conversation away from their issues and onto us as counselors. Along with that, we obviously could not be dismissive of anything; we always had to ask in depth questions about anything brought up.

Types of texters

The support texters can feel through texting counselors.

We had a common list of texters and how to approach them. One type was a third party texter. What this means is that someone has texted in on behalf of a friend or loved one who they were worried about. Obviously, we cannot provide help for someone we are not directly speaking to. These types of texters were something I personally struggled with, as protocol stated I had to take care of the person texting in even though the problem wasn’t about them. Third party texters would often get annoyed with me caring more about them than the person they texted in about.

We also encountered break up texters. These texters ranged in ages, the youngest I ever spoke to was thirteen years old. We were taught five things in regard to these texters: talk it out, walk it out, shut it out, seek it out, and watch out. Talk it out being obvious, which is to let the texter talk and not hold back. Walk it out is literal; encourage the texter to get out of bed and physically move. Shut it out means that the texter should not dwell on their ex’s Facebook photos; they need to remove or block them in order to move on. Seek it out means that texters are encouraged to find counselors, as Crisis Text Line is not meant as a permanent, daily therapy service. Watch out was something counselors told texters so that the texter could become aware of mental/emotional changes within themselves because of the breakup and to use tools discussed with the counselor to stay out of that rut.

Another type of texters are LGBTQ+ texters. We have a whole sheet of things to talk about with these texters such as “How do you feel about your assigned birth gender?” or “How do you like to express your gender?” If they’re getting bullied, we can say things such as “You have the right to feel safe at home, at school, and everywhere you go. No one has the right to bully you.” We are here to validate and uplift those struggling with their gender/sexual orientation and plan with them on how to keep them safe.

How to get in contact with Crisis Text Line

The Crisis Text Line Facebook page.

Like I mentioned earlier, there are phone numbers you can text. However, Crisis Text Line went beyond that and into apps. Fun fact, you can actually access a Crisis Text Line counselor through Facebook. You can either connect through Facebook Messenger on their public Facebook page or, if a friend has reported a post related to suicide or self harm, they will see the Crisis Text Line resource.

Crisis Text Line is also available through the messaging app called Kik. The automatic Kik bots can notice messages such as “I want to die” and will automatically send a resource for Crisis Text Line for the user to message. Even though a bot sends the resource, Crisis Text Line counselors are not bots; they are real people.

Volunteering for Crisis Text Line was such a rewarding yet difficult experience. It taught me more about myself as an individual and about the people all around the United States. It taught me how to be a better support system for people in my personal life and how to help those I meet. It helped me calm classmates countless times in high school and made me feel really helpful. Even though I joined when I was mentally struggling myself, it actually helped me mentally a lot. It gave me such a strong purpose in this world that I will continue to grow until the day I die.

What Happens When You Mix College and Mental Illnesses

Believe it or not, having mental illnesses and going to college isn’t the easiest thing to do. Being in denial about just how bad your mental health is and starting college is even more difficult. I went into college thinking nothing bad could possibly happen as long as I went to class and did my homework. I thought, like most people probably think, that college would be like it was in movies; you’d get a really cool roommate and love your classes and live your best life. But what happens when college doesn’t happen like that?

To start out, most people don’t graduate in exactly four years. Graduating in four years is actually pretty rare yet is still a marvelous feat to achieve. In reality, as many as 59% of people seeking their bachelor’s degree take up to 6 years to graduate. Since it’s so rare to actually graduate in 4 years, a term called the “Four Year Myth” has become pretty well known and is true to its meaning. In a study of 580 public four-year universities, only 50% graduated on time. Even knowing how common it is to graduate late, it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with as an individual.

I personally started college in 2015 right after I graduated high school. I made out a plan for my courses in order to graduate on time, which included taking summer courses.

IMG_6342
Ari sitting in front of her university sign her first year of college.

 

Yet here I am starting my fourth year with no idea of my graduation date. My first year of college wasn’t like the movies. Instead, it was incredibly hard. I was uprooted from my routine back home and was forced to live on my own where I inevitably collapsed in on myself like a dying star. The mental health issues I was already battling went into overdrive and I finished my first semester with a 0.067 GPA and a letter of academic probation in my mailbox.

However, I wasn’t the only one facing a challenge like this. In the 2014-2015 school year, 1,170 students dropped out of their own colleges because of mental health issues. That’s a staggering number to look at yet it gets worse when you realize that it’s a 210% increase since the 2009-2010 school year. In the same study, 87,914 students asked to start counseling in the 2015-2016 school year. Mental health is an alarming issue in college students all across the nation as well as people outside of college.

For me, I faced the two most common mental health issues in college students: anxiety and depression. I’m not talking about feeling sad and being nervous in class, I’m talking weeks without showers because I lacked motivation and skipping a day of class then never going back because I felt too anxious to face my professor as to why I was missing. I’m talking days on days where I only ate microwavable macaroni cups in my dorm room because I was too anxious to face people and staying up for 72 hours straight because I couldn’t stop thinking about anything and everything. That kind of anxiety and depression. What’s worse is that students all over the country endure the same emotional pain and one of these students could be in your class.

To get more specific, anxiety and depression affects 57% of women and 40% of men. On top of that, 40% of these people do not seek help. The reason many don’t look for help is for a variety of reasons.

MentalHealthStats
Infographic based on a survey done by loyolaphoenix.com

It’s possible they’re in denial of how bad it is or maybe they can’t afford to get help. It’s possible that many could have misconceptions of what it means to go to therapy, like that it makes you weak or that therapists don’t actually do anything. Then there’s the more macabre possibility: maybe they just wanted to give up. Whatever the case may be, mental health issues are only getting worse in college students.

For me, I was continuously told to give up my dream of a college education my entire second semester. What’s worse is that I was told this by the therapists on campus. I was told there was no hope for me at that point and that I needed to give up in order to reevaluate my life. It was just assumed that I didn’t like college or at least this specific college. It was assumed that the only thing causing my distress what college itself, which couldn’t be further from the truth. By the summer of 2016, a week before I was to move into my on-campus apartment, I was told that I was kicked out of school because of my grades. However, I had spent the entire summer appealing failed classes with the help of an off-campus counselor and one appeal went through, allowing me to go back to college. However, since I live so far away and had nowhere to live near campus since I lost my apartment, I had to take a year off.

Long story short, I fought long and hard with the war raging in my head. I traveled 5 hours every week to attend therapy in order to make sure I was ready for the next time I attended classes. Even though I lost all of my loans and financial aid, I started back at the same university for the 2017-2018 school year and made the President’s list. I was put in the local newspaper back home and earned my loans back. I worked hard and went from a freshman to a junior in 365 days. I joined clubs, got a part-time job, made friends and seemed like a normal kid. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have off days. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still feel the effects of mental health issues in my academics and my daily life.

All in all, if I’ve learned anything, I’ve learned that it’s possible to make a comeback. I’ve learned that mental health issues are more common in college students than anyone would like to admit. I’ve learned how to overcome and how to share my story for those in a similar position. While it wasn’t the experience I planned for or wanted, I wouldn’t change it for anything.