26 Minutes On Hold: Transforming The Suicide Prevention Hotline

Trigger Warning: Suicide, Mental Health, Trauma, Violence

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In our home, October 2020 has unaffectionately become known as “the suicide month.” 

My 15-year-old daughter tragically lost a friend and classmate to suicide. Two weeks after that, the same daughter witnessed the suicide of a stranger. 

Like every person affected by suicide, we were unexpectedly plunged into a world that we had no map or tools to navigate, one with a whole new language that we didn’t speak and one we don’t really want to be a part of. In October 2020, desperate for resources, I became a caller to the Suicide Prevention Hotline.

This is our story. 

Suicide #1:

When my daughter heard the news of her friend’s passing, she fell apart – crumbled into a puddle on the kitchen floor. I struggled with what to say or not say in the immediate moments and the following hours. I knew we were in traumatic and fragile moments. I began googling (but had no time to read the articles I found).

So I called the National Suicide Prevention Hotline – hoping that they would have tips, words of wisdom, and direction to support people around me.

Here’s what happened:

It took several times for my call to go through.

When it did, I was greeted by an automated/robot voice that tells you who you are calling, that the hotline also serves veterans, oprima dos for Espanol, and please wait while they route your call.

I was on hold for almost 26 minutes before I heard the reassuring voice of a human. 

The whole time that I was on hold, I listened to jazz music alternating with a prerecording of “This call may be monitored for quality assurance.”

When someone answered, I could hear many other phones in the background ringing, so I can safely assume a longer wait time is due to increased need and fewer support professionals. The counselor was extremely helpful and provided me immediate and actionable advice.

She shared with me that teenage suicide often prompts additional suicides and that it was crucial to stay close to my daughter. To ask her clearly and directly, “Are you going to hurt yourself?” She coached me not to say anything that could be perceived as victim-blaming or to speculate about causes or alternative outcomes. She taught me that we do not say “committed suicide” and instead use the words “died by suicide” – a victim of suicide did not commit a crime. 

For 26 minutes, I empathized with a caller that might be facing their own mental health crisis and imagined what those 26 minutes would feel like. I imagined how dark of a place someone might be in and how courageous, scared, and hopeful they might be when they dial that number. I thought about how that number is found in any search or article about prevention.

I decided right then and there that I will do anything I can to change that experience for a caller.

I was preparing an action plan.

And Then, Suicide #2:

Two weeks after her friend’s funeral, in a not-connected but tragically related event, my daughter witnessed a stranger’s suicide. 

In downtown Chicago in the middle of eLearning, seated by a window, she saw a woman across the courtyard jump from her balcony. 

She couldn’t understand what was happening until it had happened.

This is a traumatic event for anyone, much let alone a teenager, and one on the tails of losing someone to suicide.

It seems like a one in a million chance to be there in that space at that moment. I am starting to believe that it’s not a coincidence but rather a testament to the current state of mental health and the dire need for resources. 

What happens next:

I am not a mental health expert or versed in suicide prevention. I empathize with the front-line workers to our country’s mental health crisis. 

I design and improve experiences for a living, and I imagine a much-needed transformation. I imagine small changes that could have a considerable impact and save lives. What if a human voice was used to automate the call? What if there were custom scripts and greeting, what if while on hold (especially during times of surge) there were meditations, counting, or messages of support and hope, what if there was any follow-up, even opt-in follow-up. This hotline serves as one of the most critical/pivotal resources in an individual’s journey. 

I recognize that I am new to this space and don’t have access to all of the information, funding, structure, limitations, but I am now a hotline user. And I can’t unsee the possibilities. My focus is to modify the caller experience to the hotline, specifically during hold times, to create a human connection sooner. 

I have been researching the hotline, suicide statistics and trends, prevention resources, groups, affiliations, and available funding. I am working to raise additional funds and have joined The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention as a volunteer.

My goal is to connect with leadership at Vibrant Emotional Health (the team that runs the Lifeline) to begin a dialogue to understand better if they have had these same ideas and, if so, what prevented the ideas from being implemented. I am committed to serving as a resource in whatever capacity it takes to an already overburdened, underfunded system.

I will keep this community updated on my learnings as well as the progress of my mission. Please reach out to me at andrea@theprequal.com if you would like to contribute to or collaborate on this project. 

If you or someone you know is at risk for suicide, please seek help by calling the hotline at 800-273-8255 or access online resources at Talk To Someone Now: Lifeline (suicidepreventionlifeline.org)

To access the Lifeline’s one-pager of statistics and data, please click here AFSP-Hill-Day-2017-1-pager.pdf (suicidepreventionlifeline.org)

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