988 mental health crisis phone line opens Saturday

988 is a new national number, similar to 911 which was implemented in 1968.

This has been such a great need for so long. Hopefully this will decrease the number to 911 for mental health crises that today lead to deaths because sometimes in crisis people can’t listen to directions. Cops are not trained to handle a mental crisis. When I was a volunteer for the local crisis line when I was in college, I had to undergo 180 hours of training in transactional analysis before I was allowed to take a call.

This was before the advent of cell phones as an everyday item. Some people had car phones but it was too expensive to talk to a person in crisis on them. Everyone I knew who worked on the volunteer line took their shift from their house. The people in need could call the number that was advertised, and the call would ring through to whoever was on call. Our personal numbers were never advertised.

Our local crisis line was staffed entirely volunteers who would take a shift to be available for calls to speak to whoever reached out. Mostly it was people who were lonely, I’m looking at you person who shan’t be named who just called in every shift to tie up the line for 4 hours at a time. But other people called with genuine need.

One day, in the middle of summer in the mid 1990s, I got a call from a suicidal person. They didn’t want to die but there was no other way to stop the pain. They had a knife and they called the crisis line instead of using it to harm themselves.

I remember telling them that I was so glad they called the crisis line and I would be happy to talk to them for as long as they needed. They just sobbed on the phone saying the mental pain had to stop and could I help them please. Leaning on my training, I ascertained whether or not they were alone, which they were. I asked if there was someone that could be contacted to come be with them. They panicked, thinking I was going to hang up the phone. I soothed, explaining that I had a neighbor who could call for them. I would just need a number. They mumbled a number, I wrote it down, along with a note that I needed them to call this number and alert who answered that they were needed at home because someone in their house could not be alone.

Still talking on my portable phone, I walked over to my neighbor’s apartment and banged on the door. He opened it and I thrust the note to him. As if we had practiced it, he read the note quickly, held up his hand in a call gesture and I nodded, mouthing please. It took less than a minute to convey the message. I went back across the hall, continuing to talk and listen. My neighbor gave me a thumbs up through the screen door. I smiled at him and mouthed thanks. And told the caller that their person was on the way to them.

The caller and I spent about an hour on the phone together, as they became more and more calm. We talked about whatever topic they wanted to talk about. I knew that the immediate crisis was ending but I didn’t want to hang up until someone else was with them. We talked about their plans for college in the fall, and which city had the better baseball team, about their job. We talked movies and television shows.

Every minute away from the acute crisis calmed them even more.

Finally, I could hear the doorbell through the phone. Their person was there.

Haltingly, they thanked me for my time and that they were feeling much better. I could tell they were becoming embarrassed about causing a scene and I rushed to remind them that is why I volunteered for the crisis line.

I did not give them any recommendations for treatment, that was not my role. My sole job was to listen and make gentle suggestions such as the have another person present and diffuse the acute crisis by being a listening ear when they needed one.

I am not sure that the crisis line still exists or if it has been enveloped by the mental health services for the county. But I was there when that person needed me, and that is all that matters.

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