That Time I Called a Suicide Hotline

Greetings, Internet! Apologies, this was going to be a post about physical therapy (I promise I will get to that soon!), but then we lost two icons (RIP Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain) and I had to weigh in on all of the suicide hotline number sharing that tends to happen once a celebrity takes their life. Yes, I am aware that this happened two weeks ago, and that a number of national crises have popped up since then. Some might say that I’ve missed the boat on talking about suicide hotlines, and that this post is over a week too late. If you believe that, then I respectfully disagree. Anytime is a good time to talk about mental health. If anything, this is an attempt to keep the discussion alive.

Generally, once people hear the news that yet another famous person has committed suicide, there is a flurry of well-meaning people posting numbers to suicide hotlines and requesting that others “check in on their ‘strong’ friends.” I’m not sure what the Dickens it means to have a “strong” friend, because we’re all strong to some extent. Regardless, depression is a disease that does not care what your identity or position is in life, so it’s good that we’re starting to take this seriously.

But of these people who say, “If you’re struggling, call this number,” I have to wonder how many have called that number themselves, or know someone who has called and benefitted from doing so. I recall an article from The Mighty published last year about someone who called the Samaritans hotline, and it was a positive experience. Perhaps you have an experience where you called and have benefitted from doing so. If so, good for you! But browsing through online forums of people who have called suicide or crisis hotlines gives the impression that not all experiences are the same. Some were relieved to hear another person’s voice. Some felt even worse afterwards.

It’s difficult to assess how effective these hotlines can be. The site for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline does not have statistics that reflect the impact of intervention or if there was any change in the suicide rate that directly resulted from their services, but rather has “Stories of Hope and Recovery.” And the caller is supposed to remain anonymous at any rate, which would make data collecting even more difficult.

Which brings me to the title of this post – I called a suicide hotline once when I was eighteen, and it was an absolute waste of time. Maybe the person on the other end was having a bad day. Maybe they thought I was whining. I have no idea, but looking back nine years later (and meeting people who are experienced in counseling), I can say that the person I was on the phone with was most likely terrible at their job.

To provide background: I was two years post injury when I called. I was on my gap year between high school and college. Meaning, I had not yet met my college friends, lived in housing that was designed for me (renovating my parents’ house at the time was too expensive), or, to be honest, left my parents’ house all that much. My senior year of high school was absolute hell, with my former track teammates basically telling me that my wheelchair made them uncomfortable, and with my classmates thinking that my acceptance to Harvard was due to my paralysis (i.e. I didn’t deserve it and I stole their spot). I remember going on Facebook everyday of my gap year and seeing how happy all my former classmates were at their new colleges. Every picture showed them smiling and meeting new people. I imagined that I, too, could’ve been happy and smiling if my neck hadn’t fractured.

On a deeper level, it hurt to see that the people who caused me so much pain were doing great. For someone who believes in karma, it was a gut punch. Perhaps they were right to be terrible to me, I would think. Perhaps I deserved their animosity, and perhaps they were happy now that I was out of their lives and they didn’t have to look at my wheelchair anymore.

My life felt like someone had pushed a “pause” button. I was miserable and lonely. Outside of my family, the person with whom I had the most communication was my trainer, because I went to Push to Walk three times a week. But I talked to him more as I would to a physical therapist, and not so much as a friend. Also, it’s not great discussion material to say, “Why are all the people who were jerks to me so happy?” mid-workout. My trainer was rather taciturn, and routinely would answer the question, “How’s it going?” with, “Good, Jets won, Yankees won.” I doubted he wanted to ruminate on the psychological workings and motivations of teenage mean girls, or on the notion of karma – particularly not while I was supposed to be maintaining my posture during an exercise.

This is the context so that you know where I was, mentally, when I called a suicide hotline. It was the number on the PostSecret (remember PostSecret?) website, the National Hopeline Network. I remember the call fairly well. As soon as the person on the other end got my name (I made one up – I said it was Samantha and the woman on the other end called me Amanda for the whole call), I said, “I’m not actually suicidal, I just want someone to talk to.”

Her tone changed. I felt like I was wasting her time. I wasn’t clinically depressed or about to wheel myself into oncoming traffic, so what was I doing on the line? I wanted to hear a human voice who would talk to me, which at that moment seemed selfish. She listened to me complain (or what felt like complaining), although I imagined that she was reading off a script every time there was a pause. I apologized frequently. Every time I said something, I thought about how maybe it wasn’t something to complain about. My feelings were not validated, and even though I couldn’t bring myself to stop talking, all I could think about was how this lady wanted me off the phone so she could talk to someone who was legitimately in crisis.

After I hung up, I told myself that I would never call another hotline like that again. And to reiterate, this may have been a bad call in general. There are probably other crisis lines that have people on staff who are far better trained to handle a recently paralyzed teenager. All I remember was that I wasn’t suicidal, but I was most definitely lonely. I would later learn that loneliness was the great common denominator of those who call suicide hotlines, meaning that my eighteen-year-old self certainly fit the demographic of a typical hotline caller (further proof that I should not have felt like I was wasting anyone’s time). It was also recently reported that loneliness causes physical distress. I may not have been clinically depressed, but loneliness is no joke.

Why didn’t I talk to my family, you might wonder. Well, the first year or two post-SCI, the whole family was stressed. When my dad wasn’t at work, he was on the phone with insurance companies arguing on my behalf for various health-related costs. My mom was driving me to New Jersey for physical therapy three times a week, also while trying to balance a full-time job. Most of the time, she would drive to NJ, drive to her office, and then put in a few hours of work while I sat in a Barnes and Noble and read. At this time, my sister was preparing for the bar. You think I’m going to give someone studying for the bar even more stress? Ha.

And why didn’t I reach out to my former high school friends? Surely they weren’t all terrible. To be fair, there were people I was friends with in middle school who had also gone to high school with me, but I had lost contact with most of them because they hadn’t joined the track team. I also had convinced myself that everyone was busy, so I wasn’t going to bother them or rain on their college-filled happiness parade. There was one friend who would stop by unannounced, and she was wonderful, but she was also a year behind me in high school and I knew it was only a matter of time before she went off to college, too.

Please don’t be under the impression that I’m attacking people for posting the National Suicide Hotline number. You all mean well, and I’m glad that you’re putting mental health in the spotlight. And for people who don’t have very many mental health resource options, it’s good to know that there’s something out there with no cost. But a phone number isn’t the grand solution to mental health crises.

And as much as I hate to say it, it may be a bit lazy to post a phone number to your “strong” and “struggling” friends and say something to the effect of, “I care about you and want you to call this number (that I have not tested and am posting mainly because it’s the same number everyone else is posting). Also if you’re feeling awful, reach out to me.” For starters, it makes your friend, who already may be struggling, do all the work. You, on the other hand, get to put your hands behind your head, recline in your seat a little, and think that you’ve nailed this friendship thing.

I imagine that came off as a bit harsh. Obviously, I don’t know your situation. Perhaps you’re in a place, mentally, where all you can do is post the number to spread awareness. If that’s the case, then you’ve done what you can do and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you’re someone who is in a good place, generally, then the “talk to me if you’re struggling” status might not be enough. It’s difficult when people post things like, “reach out to me” and “I’m here to help,” because anyone who sees your post and is struggling with their mental health may not actually reach out to you, even if they want to.

Speaking from personal experience, if I saw a friend who looked like they were owning life on Facebook (and many of us have curated our social media accounts to suggest that we are indeed owning life), I wouldn’t have wanted to burden that friend’s life with my problems, even if they said, “reach out to me!” You might read that sentence and think, “Burden? What burden?” In a mental health crisis, it’s easy to think that you are a burden, and that you’re bothering people with your problems, no matter how welcoming these people may seem and how real your issues feel. I eventually learned that if it were true that your friends were annoyed with you for opening up to them, then your friends sucked.

At eighteen, I needed people to reach out to me. I wanted friends who would ask me to get coffee, set up a Skype date, chat on the phone, or do anything to show that there was someone outside of my immediate (and overworked) family who genuinely cared about my well-being.

I imagine that the situation is different for someone who is clinically depressed, and my lack of knowledge about depression means that I cannot speak to the effectiveness of hotlines or reaching out. All I can say is that if you know that your friend is in a bad place (whether it’s loneliness or something stronger), and you’re mentally in a good place, then definitely reach out anyway. Not in the, “Hey, I was worried you might jump into a ravine soon and I’m here to tell you not to jump” way. That’s kind of blunt. Maybe ask if they want to grab a meal soon (and actually go and grab a meal with them). If they’d love to see you, but don’t have the energy to leave their apartment, then go over to their place and order takeout. We get busy and wrapped up in our lives to the point where we forget that there are other humans, and that humans need humans. I’m not asking you to become your friend’s therapist if you know they’re not in a great place. I’m asking you to be a friend. If that is too much work for you, perhaps reconsider why you become friends with people.

All this is not to say that I hate suicide hotlines. You’re missing the point if that is your only takeaway from this post. I’m saying that while my own experience with a suicide hotline was not the greatest sales pitch for the hotline in general, they still have their purpose. Their presence alone is a good thing. There was a study mentioned in Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant’s Option B about a button that people could press during a study if they felt too stressed during a particular activity. The study found that the presence of the button alleviated stress, even if no one pushed it (pp. 46-47).

That said, I think that if you truly care about your friends’ well being, and you’re concerned that they’re struggling, call them yourselves before you send them off to the uncertain world of crisis hotlines. Friendship can make a huge difference in the life of someone in a mental health crisis. After my injury, three of my friends from elementary school decided we would start having annual mini-reunions. It meant the world that they reached out, because it showed me that there were those who, under no obligation, opted to spend time with me. I keep in touch with them more now than I did in high school, and I love them so much that I’d punch anyone who messed with them in the face (or, you know, wherever I can reach while sitting down).

Oh, and just as a disclaimer, don’t worry about me. I’ve been in a good place since college, and have tried to be good with keeping in touch with the wonderful people I am lucky to call my friends. I write to share my experiences, and not to call out anyone for not giving me a call. I admit that I’m petty, but not that petty.

Thanks for reading!

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