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What’s it Like to Work at a Suicide Prevention Center

For the last year, I have been working at the Didi Hirsch Suicide Prevention Center as a crisis counselor. This job has quite literally changed my life. That is not to say that it has been easy, although incredibly rewarding, there are moments of pure frustration.

Throughout this entire process, I have learned a lot about myself and deepened my understanding on the prevalent stigma of mental health. After having completed a year worth of shifts, I thought I’d share what it really is like to volunteer and take these calls.

Why did I decide to do this?

This is a question I have been asked time and time again since starting in August 2020. I have always had a passion for psychology and mental health advocacy. Even before deciding to receive my B.A. in psychology, I had a very personal connection to this topic. To be quite honest, if it weren’t for calling a suicide hotline when I was younger, I would not be here today. 

I have always known that it takes a lot of courage and vulnerability to not just call a line, but to be able to volunteer and help those in crisis. Wanting to be a therapist myself, and seeing how people suffered from mental health during the peak of the pandemic back in 2020, I knew that it was the right time to do this.

The Interview Process

The organization I had wanted to work with had specific requirements in order to take calls at the center. Some of these included being a minimum of 21 years old, able to commit to a year (52 shifts) of taking calls, and a screening and interview process. 

Once I had submitted my application, I was contacted to set up a phone interview and was told if they found me as a good fit, I may progress to a second group interview.

I really enjoyed my interview process because they were mainly concerned with why I had wanted to volunteer and what my background was with mental health. At the time of applying, I had no experience in the field other than having just finished my second year as a psychology undergraduate. 

The company put more emphasis on how you handle situations with friends, which helps them get a sense of your empathy and capability to handle the position.

The Training Process

Didi Hirsch accepts up to 50 students to train every month. I had joined the August-September training class. When accepting the position, you also agree to a six-week long training program for 2 night classes a week for 3 hour classes. 

Although when I tell people about the training process, it can seem overwhelming, it is incredibly helpful. The purpose for having these long shifts is so that people are prepared for taking the calls. 

Each class covers a different topic such as low risk and high risk calls. We also do role-playing activities where we practice answering crisis calls. This for me was stressful during the time, but really was helpful to get comfortable with the format. 

During training you are also paired with a current crisis counselor at the center known as your phone buddy. Now your phone buddy is responsible for setting up weekly calls to do a more focused one on one role playing call depending on the topic presented that week.

My phone buddy really helped me not just with the calls, but was always there if I had questions about what this industry meant to her. The great thing about this type of work is that people involved genuinely care for you and want to learn more about you.

Starting to Take Calls

After my six week training, I had started going in to take calls from the center. I remember feeling incredibly anxious for my first shift. Although I had done the training I was worried that something really serious could happen. The great thing is that you undergo a 12 week apprenticeship where your supervisor listens in on calls and guides you through a chatting service, if you happen to get stuck.

At the center, we use the desktops to log in on the proper channels so that we can take the calls, while also being able to communicate with our supervisors and have a list of resources on call. The one thing I remember the most about this process is to trust yourself. As cliche as that sounds, it is true because the training prepares you for all these different scenarios that it is so easy to stress yourself about the type of call you will receive rather than being attentive to who is on the other line.

How did I learn to let go?

The biggest takeaway I took from this last year is learning to set personal boundaries and when to let go. Sometimes just because of the nature of the work that we do, it can be extremely hard to move on from a difficult call. But that is why our supervisors are so helpful because we can debrief with them. 

To be honest, in the beginning I would remember every single call and my emotional connection to each. But at the end of the day, if you begin to internalize what others are struggling with it can be hard to get through the day. I learned that you can show compassion while also moving forward. Some stay with you and that’s okay, but it’s all about time.

The absolute best thing I learned from this last year is the value of empathy and connection. Working at Didi Hirsch, I have been able to connect with so many people from different backgrounds who chose to volunteer for different reasons. Surrounding yourself with people who have similar values is so important.

Having a little bit of knowledge of what our roles and responsibilities are at the center, creates a deeper understanding of what it takes to be a crisis counselor. I think something that needs to be acknowledged is that we are volunteers at the end of the day, we aren’t licensed help. What we do is listen, and create judgment free spaces where people in crisis can turn to.

If you or someone you know are having thoughts of suicide, you can always reach out. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 24/7 hotline (800) 273 8255.

Hi!! I'm Christina Fazio and I'm a psychology major and double minor in Women and Gender Studies & Journalism at LMU and am originally from the Hollywood area. I typically love to talk about social justice issues, mental health issues and I enjoy the simple things in life including journalism, binge-watching shows on Netflix, and looking out at the Bluff at LMU. Constantly learning new ways to be informed and educated and sharing that through my writing.
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