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Youth In Crisis Find Someone To Listen At Teen Hotline

KUOW Photo / Caitlin Gaylord

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "You always feel nervous, every shift. You don't know if it's going to be a dead night and you're not going to get a call, or else you're going to get a suicide. - Colin, Teen Link Volunteer", "style": "wide"}]][asset-images[{"caption": "A volunteer at Teen Link.", "fid": "67493", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201408/DSC_9583.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo / Caitlin Gaylord"}]]The walls are covered with colorful decorations and pictures of about 80 smiling volunteers. Wires covering the desk connect computers to phone headsets. And volunteers like high school senior Colin are waiting for the phones to ring. 

Most cities have their own anonymous hotline for people in crisis. Few of these hotlines are specifically for teens and staffed by teens. At Seattle’s Teen Link, teen volunteers answer calls from teens in crisis every night. Teen Link doesn’t allow volunteers to share their last names, in order to prevent harassment.

Colin started volunteering at Teen Link this year, but he’s always been the go-to person among his friends when they have issues. “I’ve had a several friends throughout my life deal with suicide and self-harm,” he said.  

Fellow volunteer Erica, 17, also had the experience of supporting a suicidal friend when she was in middle school. “I was pretty much the only person he was talking to about it, and so I felt a lot of pressure to keep him alive on my own,” she said.

Erica’s friend is doing much better now, but not all teens are able to overcome their issues.

Audra Letnes was the daughter of a staff member at the Crisis Clinic, the hotline for adults in King County. In 1996, Letnes was murdered by her abusive boyfriend.  At the time, resources for teens were few and far between, and so Audra’s mother started Teen Link.

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "Most of the time when someone has a problem, they've thought about solutions already. They don't need to hear one more thing that they've already tried.", "style": "inset"}]]Non-Judgmental Perspective

Breona Mendoza trains the volunteers at Teen Link and said it's a unique space where teens can talk to other teens and not have to feel judged or have to have the right answers.

At Teen Link, she said, teens support each other and are able to be real with each other in whatever experiences they’re going through.

Still, Erica said, a lot of teens she knows think it’s strange to call Teen Link, and instead talk to their friends about their problems. But unlike most friends, volunteers at Teen Link are trained to handle tough situations.

Mendoza criticizes what she calls our culture of advice and problem-solving.  “Most of the time when someone has a problem, they’ve thought about solutions already," she said. "They don’t need to hear one more thing that they’ve already tried. What they need is for someone to listen.”

Teen Link’s directive is to “talk it out.” The volunteers are there to support the callers, not tell them what to do. Teen Link gets calls about a wide variety of issues including suicide, school stress, family fights and self-harm.

'I Don't Want To Get Better'

[asset-images[{"caption": "Words of encouragement posted in the Teen Link office.", "fid": "71651", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201408/TeenLink3.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW / Caitlin Gaylord"}]]Julia McIntyre has been there. A senior in high school, she’s struggled with an eating disorder for several years. During some of that time, she didn’t want help.

“You know, sometimes, when you’re in a really bad place, you’re scared,” she said, “but there’s something even more scary about not being scared. I’ve been in that place too, when it was like, I don’t want to get better. I don’t want to reach out to anybody. I’m just willing to let myself waste away.”

McIntyre didn’t know about Teen Link at the time, but she said that if she had reached out, she might have gotten help sooner. This year, she started treatment and said she’s doing better.

Erica remembers a call with a girl who, like McIntyre, wasn’t afraid of the danger she was in. The girl was in an abusive relationship and explained to Erica that her love didn’t make sense, and she knew it didn’t make sense, but that didn’t stop her from feeling the way she did.

Erica asked the girl if she would call 911 if she felt that her life was in danger, and the girl said no.

“That really stuck with me," Erica said, “because regardless of how dangerous the situation was, she didn’t want to get her boyfriend in trouble.”

Then, Erica said, the girl said she had to go because her boyfriend was coming soon. “I was so close to just telling her don’t do it, don’t hang out with him. But I can’t tell her to do that because that’s not what she needs to hear," Erica said.

“It was so hard to let her hang up the phone knowing that he was going to hurt her.”

At the end of the call, Erica said she felt bad she couldn’t have done more. She talked it over with her supervisor.

“I just had this overwhelming feeling of failure and disappointment that I hadn’t been able to do something to change her mind," she said. "And you get that feeling of what could I have said more to change her mind and there isn’t really anything you could have said more.”

Erica thinks about that call often.

Through outreach meetings and discussions with their supervisors, volunteers spend a lot of time talking about and processing their emotions.

Talking about these challenging calls helps volunteers form a strong community, which Colin calls another family.

Erica said that being a volunteer is a rewarding experience because she can see the difference she’s making in the lives of the callers.

“I’m never going to know what someone else’s life is like, but at least now I really think about it,” she explained. “When you’re talking to someone on the phone you’re making a very immediate difference in their life.”  

Some nights, Erica feels like she helped someone simply feel less alone. At other times, she says she feels like “Hey, I may have saved someone’s life tonight.”

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