when it comes to calling for help, how helpful are suicide prevention hotlines?
Elliot White // Features Editor
Valeriya Kim // Illustrator
Trigger Warning: This article touches on depression, self-harm and suicide ideation. If you or someone you know is in emotional distress, support services can be reached through The Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention Centre of BC, which offers around-the-clock support.
Support is also available through Canada’s suicide prevention line at 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433), the Kuu-us Indigenous Crisis Line at 1-800-588-8717, or B.C.’s recently launched Wellbeing website. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org.
“We’re here to help”
The words are massive, bold and a sickeningly bright yellow. They contrast against the grey background of the screen, illuminating Eric’s face as they stare at the Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention main website.
“Here to help, my ass.”
The Canadian Mental Health Association released a brochure last year outlining facts about Canadians and their mental health – they projected that about 1 in 5 Canadians personally experience mental illness in any given year. As we get deeper into the winter months, a lot of people can find themselves affected by mental health disorders. Feeling isolated, alone and with the added COVID restrictions increasing, it becomes even harder to reach out when you really need help.
Suicide prevention hotlines, also known as crisis prevention hotlines, are free numbers that people can call or text in times of need. They provide support, and the operators are often trained in the field of mental health. The volunteers and hotline operators give their time and energy to focus on helping those battling the difficult plights of depression and suicidal thoughts, but what happens when that help doesn’t work? Every system has flaws, but in a world where we like to idolize those who try to provide support, it’s easy to turn a blind eye to reality.
Eric Fraction*, 25, has been affected by mental health their entire life. From being treated for depression at an early age, to seeking help for suicide ideation as they reached their late teens.
“I’m the barcode friend,” they laugh, pulling up their sleeve to reveal a row of straight scars along their wrist. The nickname is derived from the barcode-like appearance of self-harm scars. “You gotta have a sense of humour with something like this, otherwise it’ll eat you from the inside.” They tap their fingers idly against the keys of their laptop — looking at them now it’s hard to believe they’ve ever been in crisis. They speak with confidence and joke about cutting themself without even flinching.
“I think I was at my lowest when I called in, I wanted to talk to someone who was gonna help me. I wanted someone to fix me,” says Fraction. It was a few years ago when they first called a suicide prevention hotline, looking for some kind of support. “I was literally going to off myself, and they just kept telling me to ‘do what makes me happy’.”
“It took about 45 minutes for them to actually reach me,” says Fraction, someone well-versed in the field of depression. “When I finally got through, they didn’t even try to acknowledge how I was feeling — they just kept trying to distract me.” Distraction can be an effective way to help someone cope with suicidal thoughts, but the issue lies with not listening when the person on the other line says it’s not working. “They asked me if I had anyone I talked to — clearly not, dude! I wouldn’t be calling this number if I did,” they say, “When I told them I didn’t…they sort of just… stopped talking. It was a lot of ‘mhm’ and ‘ah, I see’ after that.”
This sentiment, unfortunately, is common among people who have chosen to call a crisis hotline. The Crisis Centre of BC has a 2.7/5 star rating on Google. Scrolling through the recent reviews brings you to a menagerie of mixed opinions. Some claim the operators were rude and distant, while others sing praises of support and care. It seems calling the hotline can be a bit of a gamble — but what is a gamble worth when a life is on the line?
“It’s the overwhelming feeling of walking on eggshells,” explains Sharon Power*, a former 911 operator, when describing what it’s like to have someone call in the middle of a crisis. “You need to do your best to sound calm and sympathetic, to try to negotiate information out of them, while working on getting information to officers on the road who are preparing their crisis response.”
Looking at both sides of the equation, callers and operators, it seems there’s a disjoint between the two. On one hand, many people feel dismissed by crisis operators, that their assistance isn’t what’s needed. But from the perspective of those working behind the phone, it can be a difficult task if you’re not given the proper training — or any training at all. “I don’t recall receiving any specific training, or if we did, it was quite minimal and did not leave an impression on me,” says Power. “We received more general training on managing people in emotional distress, and taking control of the conversation.” Power goes on to divulge that her training was vague, and focused a lot more on the general crisis as opposed to specifically suicide and depression.
In fact, when looking at a few of the larger crisis hotline providers such as The Trevor Project, Crisis Centre BC, and ImAlive – there isn’t much in terms of requirements to volunteer. There is evidence that they provide a level of training, but none that exceed more than a few hours before they’re allowed to start taking calls. This is great if you’re looking for a high volume of ears to listen, but not if you’re looking for genuine support in a time of dire need.
This isn’t to say that it’s hopeless — it’s different from person to person. The reality is that there are no angels or demons when it comes to suicide prevention. The system itself is flawed, and it’s doing very little service to those who need it. A solution may start at getting medical professionals behind the phone, or those who have a level of real therapy training.
“I told my therapist after I called [the hotline],” says Eric as they close their laptop, the light from the screen quickly snuffed out. “She said that apparently they’re not allowed to give you advice — they’re just supposed to listen.” They smile, and it’s the smile of someone used to masking their depression. “Maybe next time I’ll talk to a brick wall. I’d probably get more help out of that.”
*The names and details of the subjects have been changed to protect their privacy.