What Volunteering for a Crisis Text Line has Taught Me About Caring for Others

Content Warning: discussion/mention of mental illness, self-harm, eating disorders, and abuse.

“Hi there, my name is Brooke and I’m here to support you.”

I’m not sure what texters think when they read this greeting in what may be their rock bottom. Likewise, I’m not sure what is happening in their life that caused them to text a mental health crisis line until they take the incredibly vulnerable step of telling me, a complete stranger. I’m not writing about their individual crises, because those span across spectra from lifelong clinical struggles like anxiety, depression, or eating disorders to more immediate circumstances like abuse, isolation, or relationship issues. Every shift contains the most unpredictable mixed bag of possibilities that I come across in my week, and all of them need different care and support. I have a toolbox of resources and references to send, exercises to walk them through, and affirmations to give, but several texters don’t even get that far into the conversation before they’re already feeling better and calmer.

Most texters just want to be listened to and validated - to an almost staggering degree. Typically conversations start with them explaining why they’ve texted in. I’ll offer validation of their feelings and affirmation of their character, then, I’ll move the conversation towards how we can work to develop plans to keep them safe and supported after we stop talking. However, many of them don’t need or want this. Oftentimes, their suffering has isolated them severely and they feel that talking about it to a loved one would be to pass the burden on to them, so a stranger willing to just listen is exactly what they need.

Texters have revealed to me confessions that they hadn’t told spouses, families, or best friends because of shame, guilt, or not knowing how to filter their raw and intense experiences enough to not warrant concern. By the time they’ve moved past elaborating on their experience and we’re ready to move into developing a safety plan for them, they tell me that they feel better already and just needed to get those words out to someone. These people are far from weak, they’re just carrying immense pain and they need someone to share it with. 

Working with humans in their most broken and fragile state has shown me that we all, at our core, just want to matter. We want our struggles to matter, we want our successes to matter, and we want our pain to be worthy of another human’s compassion and care. I’ve celebrated with the texter who’s eaten three meals today for the first time in a month and I’ve supported the texter who can’t bring herself to eat anything at all. I’ve affirmed the texter four days clean of self-harm and I’ve sat with (virtually) the texter unwilling to leave the room with the scissors in it. Each and every one of them needs someone, even a stranger, who cares enough to just be with them.

Not all conversations end with a perfectly elaborated safety plan or a texter thanking me for my time. I’ve been cursed at, people have prematurely ended the conversation, and I’ve left conversations still concerned for how the texter was going to manage that night. There’s a limit to what non-professional volunteer counselors can do for texters, but anyone can listen and validate emotions. Especially right now, everybody needs that a little more than normal.

If you or a loved one is having a mental health crisis, you can text HOME to 741741 to access the free mental health Crisis Text Line. For more immediate danger, you can also contact the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) To speak with a counselor in Spanish, call 1-888-628-9454. TTY users can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 1-800-273-8255. Chat options are also available, click here to be redirected to SuicidePreventionLifeline.org for more information.