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Real Stories From the Other End of a 'Warm Line'

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In 2014, the Mental Health Association of San Francisco (MHASF) wanted to solve a problem. The advocacy organization has been helping fellow peers with mental health challenges for seven decades, but there was no preventative step before a person calls a suicide prevention hotline or requests emergency services. And offering on-site support just wasn’t enough.

Not everyone could come to MHASF. Some dealt with disabilities such as chronic pain, while others were isolated in remote areas in California.

So in August 2014, MHASF launched the Peer-Run Warm Line. This non-emergency phone and chat support service is run by trained counselors with lived experiences of mental health challenges. They can empathize with a caller’s suicidal thoughts, urges to self-harm and experiences with medications, relationships or isolation. Counselors are a testament to the idea that things can and do get better. The Peer-Run Warm Line is a space that allows unscripted, unrecorded, honest and empathetic conversation, giving both the counselor and the caller a sense of purpose. Counselors can offer emotional support and provide information on how to access mental health professionals. All of this was designed to prevent a manageable issue from becoming a crisis. Or in other words, a “warm” mental health challenge from turning “hot.”

At the Warm Line’s peak in 2017, counselors took up to 3,000 phone calls a month and up to 130 calls a day. But when government funding dried up in June 2018, the Warm Line staff was gutted, leaving a few paid supervisors and a lean group of volunteers.

The Warm Line still operates today but only serves the Bay Area. With limited hours and coverage area, frequent callers have to find other phone support during off hours or are unable to use the Warm Line at all. Despite limited funding, the Warm Line is a needed resource impacting lives.

Here are real stories from former and current Warm Line counselors:

Sherrell, Warm Line supervisor

One of my most memorable callers was “Lisa” — a 13-year-old battling terminal cancer. Though it was late, Lisa didn’t want to go to sleep because she was afraid she wouldn’t wake up. She wanted to remain strong for her family, but she was in pain and she was terrified of dying, with no one else to talk to in these moments. I held space for Lisa to disclose her feelings, and I was able to offer her an additional resource so she could stay up as long as she needed and have someone to talk to when she felt comfortable ending our conversation.

Another memorable caller — “Ashley” — was in the process of recovering from a breakdown due to being sexually assaulted by someone she trusted. She was given a 30-day prescription, though she had never used this type of medication before and felt another breakdown was imminent. Coming from an abusive family and currently living alone in a poverty-stricken neighborhood while working as a phone-sex operator, she had no one for support. She was initially reluctant on our call, but as we wrapped up, Ashley reported not having laughed so hard in a while. Most importantly, she felt like she could make it through the night.

Dewonna, former Warm Line counselor

I used to get calls where you answer the phone and they’re already in an uproar. They’re crying so hard you can’t even understand what they’re saying. Oh yeah. Those were the ones I remember the most.

People call when they’re on the way to work. It’s 8:00 in the morning. You can hear them driving, literally. They’re on their way to work to see their boss, or they got something big going on at work. They’re dealing with some kind of anxiety or need to talk. About 10 minutes later, they say “Oh, OK, I’m here. I feel better.”

Man, that feel good! Or if you have somebody call you and they’re in a distressful moment and they remember you. “Dewonna, thank you so much!” I used to hear that a lot, for me and my other co-workers. “Thank you for helping me through that.” Man, that is rewarding. No amount of money can make you feel like that.

Eric, Warm Line counselor

I had a serious manic episode last spring. That was very, very difficult. I ended up being hospitalized in three different hospitals over a two to three week period. That was tough, but what didn’t happen which usually happens when I have a severe manic episode, is a swing the other way afterward. When I come down off of mania, I dwell in depression for the next three to four weeks in regret of all the terrible things I did when I was manic. I learned some tricks along the way that keep me healthy. When you deal with peer support you definitely have to put on your oxygen mask before you help other people.

There are people who call the Warm Line who are severely bipolar. There are people who have been hospitalized a number of times. There have been a few calls from the psychiatric hospital.

I had to deal with an interesting phone call last week. There’s a woman who is visiting from Virginia, and her daughter was struggling with a manic episode. And she wasn’t taking her medicine and wasn’t seeing her therapist. The mom was kind of like, beside herself, trying to help her daughter. When people call in on behalf of their loved ones, sometimes they are the ones who need extra help. They need support as well.

Michelle, Warm Line counselor

I started off in a shelter.

I had been couch surfing and subletting all over the Bay Area as well as living in a van. I got so tired of it and being on the short end of the stick that I decided to get serious about myself. I got myself into a shelter so I could get an SRO.

I received an email on whether I wanted to volunteer for the Warm Line and I was all for it.

That’s what I’ve been doing all my life. I always was that go-to person for support. I still am. I’m just happy that there’s a position for me to work nowadays.

I want to be there for people who need somebody. It’s really necessary. Friends or family usually don’t understand. Or they get overwhelmed. So yeah, that’s where we come in. A therapist can only see somebody twice or once a month. That extra support is really helpful.

Most of the time I can understand because I been through hell and back.

Want to help the Warm Line keep going? Here’s how:

You can reach the Peer-Run Warm Line at 415-421-1880. The Warm Line serves nine Bay Area counties: San Francisco, Alameda, Napa, Marin, Sonoma, Solano, Contra Costa, San Mateo and Santa Clara. 

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

Originally published: April 4, 2019
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