When you’re a crisis line responder, every day is hard. And heartbreaking. Just ask Caroline.
“You’re really staring death in the face here,” she says. “These are very dark moments for the people who are calling.”
These days, Caroline answers the national suicide crisis line and is moving up to supervisor. She knows what a dark moment is. Caroline lost her dad to suicide and she’s stared her own death in the face. When she moved to a new province 10 years ago, she had no support. None at all. When things got very bleak, death seemed like the only option, and she tried to take her life.
She is flourishing today, but Caroline’s no poster girl for the mental health system. She survived but says she did it on her own. She was hospitalized after her suicide attempt, but the “hospital was less than helpful. After I was released, I was essentially left by myself. They don’t give you any resources. You’re on your own. It was kind of a nightmare.”
That experience haunts her when she can’t help a caller.
“You feel really helpless when someone calls and you have to tell them ‘I’m sorry, I can’t point you to specific help.’”
“Often when they call, people are looking for counselling or some other mental health resource but can’t find it. They’ve exhausted what’s available through public health care, or they’re on a waitlist. When you’re in crisis, you can’t afford to wait a year.” And when it comes to private mental health care, callers say they simply can’t afford it.
“Imagine being at the end of your rope,” she says, “and being told the only resource is another phone number, or a database of resources and kind of being left on your own.”
For Caroline, a helpline can’t be the only answer to suicide prevention. “It’s more of a band-aid solution. It’s not for the longer term.”
Ask Caroline what would make the difference, and she’ll tell you very simply: “People need longer term support.” They need community-based counseling, peer support and mobile crisis teams.
She says people need support from someone who’s been through it and survived. “I think if I had heard from someone ‘I got through it, here’s what helped me,’ I really think that would have made a huge difference for me.”
Caroline would also like to see more mobile crisis response by mental health workers, and not police. “One of the reasons people don’t reach out to a crisis line is knowing that 911 could be called and police might have to be involved.”
People also need help to meet their basic needs. As Caroline puts it, “The helpline’s not getting to the root of anything. People are struggling with income and with housing. I know it sounds like a kind of pipe dream, but [it would help] just ensuring that people have better housing and better pay. They need more overall support.”
Thankfully for Caroline, the helpline experience is not just dark. “It’s a really amazing feeling when someone calls in and they’re quite distressed and then by the end of the call, you can hear the difference in their voice, and they tell you something like thank you for listening, or I feel better, at least for the moment.”
For many people, though, that moment is short-lived. They need a place to call, for sure. But they need care before they have to call again. They need care after the call.