Whenever people are in an active crisis or considering taking their own lives, it is commonly recommended that they call the National Suicide Hotline for immediate emotional support. However, many people are afraid to utilize the Suicide Hotline as a resource, either out of fear of the unknown (i.e., “What will happen when I call?”) or they’re fearful that the operator will notify authorities such as the police. This lack of understanding of how the Suicide Hotline actually works can deter someone from reaching out when they really could use the help.
As a former suicide hotline volunteer, I am here to demystify this anxiety-provoking process, in hopes that it will help someone to make that phone call when they are in need.
Who answers the call?
Suicide hotlines are typically nested within Crisis Centers. Crisis Centers commonly utilize a combination of trained volunteers and professionals to provide mental health services to their state and local communities. They’re also generally nonprofit, meaning that services are provided free of charge.
That being said, you might get an automation answering the phone initially, in order to direct your call, but ultimately you will be speaking with a real human. It would be either a trained volunteer or a mental health professional, and they’ve most likely undergone extensive training to know how to serve you effectively.
What will they say?
So you mustered up the courage to dial the numbers. You heard the automated message that directed your call properly, and you hear some music while they connect you with a trained counselor…. and you’ll hear:
“Suicide Hotline” or
“[insert local area] Crisis Center” (Because when you call the National Suicide Hotline, it will be routed to the Crisis Center closest to you.)
And then you can start with whatever it is you’d like to talk about. They might ask you some questions to gain a clearer understanding of your situation. They are aiming to listen to you, understand you, ensure your safety, and provide you with the support you need. Depending on the type of issue you present with, they might assess for your safety by asking if you have a plan to hurt or kill yourself, if you have the means to do so, and they may ask about your immediate social supports.
Above all, they are trained to respond with empathy. You likely won’t get someone who will tell you to, “Just cheer up,” or, “Think about all the positive things instead”. They won’t belittle your struggles, but rather be a listening ear during your time of need. They might also connect you with resources in your area for free or low-cost mental health services.
Will police/authorities get called?
There is no definite answer to this question. In most cases, the police will not be called. Here is a list of a few exceptions in which authorities may be called:
- If you are actively suicidal and in the process of carrying out a plan (e.g., you tell the person that you have a gun to your head at a specific address, or you tell them you’re hanging off the ledge of XYZ Bridge) and you are verbally adamant about carrying out your plan
- You threaten to hurt/kill others in the process
- You disclose that you’re a minor who’s under the age of 18, actively planning/carrying out a suicide, and refusing to connect the volunteer with a parent/close adult/guardian.
Although no one would like having the police or other authorities called on them during these scenarios, it’s truly for the safety and well-being of all those involved, and is the best thing a hotline volunteer can do in these situations.
Is it even helpful?
Although some people report having negative experiences with the Suicide Hotline, it is important to remember that this isn’t always the case. The volunteers on the other side of the phone are genuine, caring people who want you to be safe and well. If you’re suicidal and fearful of calling the hotline because it may not be “helpful”, I’d say it’s definitely worth a try! Your life is worth a phone call.
How to call
If you’re in the United States you can call: 1-800-273-8255 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year (or 366 on a leap year). There will always be someone there to answer your call!
If you’re more of a texter, you can text: 741-741 anytime.
For the hearing impaired, you can contact the Lifeline by TTY: 1-800-799-4889.
You can also click the following link to chat online with someone: Suicide Prevention Lifeline Online Chat
For those outside of the United States, follow this link to a list of international suicide hotlines.