On the Other End of a Teen Help Line
By Sophia, an 18-year-old Teen Link volunteer phone worker
What led you to volunteering at a help line for other teens?
When I was in middle school, I had a friend confide in me that they were having suicidal thoughts. In the moment, I froze I was so grateful that she told me, but I had no clue how to respond, no idea what I could say or do to help her. Later that evening, consumed with concern but not knowing who to turn to, I picked up the phone and called Teen Link.
The volunteer that I spoke to that night helped calm me down and guided me through forming a concrete action plan.I hung up the phone feeling confident and supported, with a firm grasp of how I could help my friend get the care she needed. This experience stuck with me, and as I saw more of my peers struggle with mental health issues, I felt urged to take action. I was drawn to Teen Link because it enabled me, as a teen, to take on a very impactful and active role in helping my community a role that I could only fill because I was a teen. I wanted to help others the way Teen Link had helped me.
What was your help line training like and how has it changed how you handle your mental health struggles and those of your friends?
The training to become a Youth Crisis Specialist was intense but incredibly fulfilling. My volunteer group had training classes—presentations, lectures, readings, and role plays—for roughly 15 hours a week for about a month. We covered everything from active listening and call basics to a variety of potential caller issues like substance abuse, suicidal thinking, social stress, and houselessness. Learning to have constructive conversations regarding mental health in a judgement-free way was incredibly invigorating, as these are often stigmatized topics plagued by misinformation.
This whole process was incredibly empowering as I built confidence where I once had helplessness, and I definitely applied what I learned through Teen Link to my personal friendships. I can now broach difficult subjects with people in my community and speak knowledgeably about the issues they’re facing, while also providing emotional support. I think my involvement with Teen Link has signified me as someone people can come to when they need help, or even just someone to talk to. I really appreciate that because facing a mental health issue or stressful situation can be incredibly isolating, so it feels good to be making a difference!
What can a teen expect when they call Teen Link and talk to someone like you?
We’ll begin by greeting you with, “Hi, this is Teen Link! What’s going on tonight?” From there, the conversation is in your hands and you can share as much or as little as you’d like about what’s troubling you. Since we’re a confidential, judgement-free support line, many people find this to be a safe place to unburden themselves and disclose freely in a way they often can’t with those they see daily in their lives.
As volunteers, even though we don’t know you personally, we still care about you and genuinely want to hear what you have to say—so feel free to vent and rant and let your feelings out if you need to!
As you tell your story, we’ll mostly just listen and provide some guidance with emotional and situational processing, as well as ask questions. Depending on what issues you’re facing and what support you want, we can connect you with helpful resources, suggest healthy coping mechanisms, form action plans, and discuss people in your life you could reach out to for continued support. We’ll never force you to do something, make decisions for you, or try to trick you into disclosing your identity.
How do you help teens who are struggling with using marijuana or other drugs?
The first thing I do is let them tell me about their substance use—how it started, what drugs they use, why they use them, why they called tonight. In doing so, I try to give them a space to talk about something they maybe haven’t told anyone else before and help them feel supported by listening without judgement. I want to form a connection with them, build trust and make them feel understood. Gathering this information also helps me determine if they’re in imminent danger or, if they’re currently safe, what kind of help I can offer them.
Usually, we discuss if there’s a trusted adult they could reach out to or even a peer. I also provide information on nearby resources—nonprofits, clinics, or organizations—they can use to get help. Oftentimes, we transfer the call to someone with more training and specialization, like our Substance Use Prevention Clinician. No matter the outcome, I always try to end the call having deescalated any negative emotions, engaged in meaningful conversation, and formed a plan for the evening so they hang up the phone feeling empowered.
To learn more about Teen Link and how to become a volunteer, visit www.teenlink.org.