Dial 1-800 and you’ll be put on hold. After a minute of ’70s-era elevator Muzak, a disembodied voice will pick up.
Attached to no name, no face and no number, the operator offers no false pretenses, only an open ear and anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours of their time. After you hang up the phone, you will likely never speak again. But in the span of a single call, they provide the comfort of a friend and the counsel of a professional.
Some heroes wear capes, others wear medals of honor and still others wear scrubs and stethoscopes.
But what about the call center strangers clad in tees and earpieces? What about the anonymous voices who lend a listening ear and a lifeline during our darkest of times?
Around the country, but especially in communities like our own which grapple with a history of academic pressure and teen mental health concerns, emergency hotline volunteers bear a heavy burden —the responsibility of helping those at the edge take a step back and cool down.
Lost and found
“I was sort of stuck between cultures.”
That’s how Columbia University sophomore Michelle Tang felt when she moved back to Palo Alto for high school after eight years of living in Beijing. Though she’d been born in Palo Alto and spent every summer since in California, Tang felt isolated by the move back, torn between her country of birth and her country of origin, finding a home in neither.
“While I was in Beijing I was known as the American person and while here I also felt like an outsider,” Tang says.
Alienated by her peers, many of whom had formed cliques in the years Tang spent abroad, and overwhelmed by Paly’s academic pressure, Tang sought help from her teachers.
“It was teachers I looked up to who personally provided me with guidance that I’m really grateful for … and I wouldn’t have been able to achieve all that I want and pursue what I love without their help along the way,” Tang says.
Moved by the support she received from her high school mentors, Tang began volunteering as a hotline operator once she graduated in 2016.
“I know that I’m very lucky and not all students have those kinds of relationships in their lives that they can reach out to,” Tang says. “I came in just really, really, really wanting to give people something and be a listener because when I was in high school, [others] were so supportive of me.”
Tang says part of her volunteer experience is emulating her high school mentors’ philosophies: being a listener as opposed to a problem solver.
“Sometimes the best that you can do is just listen.”
— Michelle Tang, Paly alum
“Sometimes the best that you can do is just listen,” Tang says. “[It’s about] just sort of quietly being there and putting yourself aside to give someone your fullest attention when they really, really need it — helping them get through when, emotionally, it can be so tough in the moment.”
Over several weeks of classes, Tang learned how to respond to different crisis situations, ask guided questions and provide empathetic validation to the caller. Once they complete their training, volunteers like Tang wait by the phone in case anyone calls for help.
“It can be really, really scary to show that you are struggling,” Tang says. “As a former student, for me as I was struggling, it could seem so painful and difficult, and it’s hard to see it getting better, but you never know how much life can change and take you to places you didn’t know you would go in the future.”
Growing up in Beijing, graduating high school in Palo Alto and going to Columbia University, Tang has lived in her fair share of academically stressful communities. However, she says the pressure she experienced during adolescence taught her the importance of asking for help.
“If there are things on your mind and you’re on the fence about whether to reach out, don’t be afraid,” Tang says. “You are not alone. Even though you may not know [them], there are people out there who really, really, really care about you.”
“Where are you going?”
Three simple words used to be enough to strike fear into senior Darrow Hornik’s heart. When she was first diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder midway through her freshman year, Hornik remembers feeling ashamed, fabricating alibis when she went to see her therapist.
“I realized that I wasn’t being honest,” Hornik says. “When I was going to my psychiatrist I would say I was going to the doctor because that seemed more “normal” … but it [going to a psychiatrist] is just as normal as going to the doctor for the flu. It’s just not viewed as ‘normal.’”
As someone who once felt silenced by
stigma, Hornik’s own trials drove her to speak out for others who feel voiceless. Though she’s not a hotline operator yet, she hopes to start training in the coming months. In the meantime, she’s given Tedx talks about her own mental health and works as an intern with Crisis Text Line to combat the stigma around mental illness and make help more accessible.
“If you’re at your dinner table and you feel like you need help, you can literally just pull out your phone from under the table and text in,” Hornik says. “There’s this feeling of privacy and you have these resources at your fingertips at any second.”
As a former beneficiary of hotline services and professional counseling, Hornik knows that admitting something is wrong is easier said than done. However, she cites her own journey as a testament to the value of seeking support during a crisis.
“We need to be okay with getting help and we need to allow others to get help without having to fear judgment or worry that others will think that there’s something wrong with them,” Hornik says.
Paying it forward
“It’s okay to not be okay.”
That’s what Brown University sophomore Shivani Nishar says she needed to hear when she was a student at Castilleja School. Now a Cognitive Science major with a focus on adolescent mental health, Nishar’s interest in the field stems from her personal experience with depression and attending school in Palo Alto when the 2014-2015 suicide cluster occurred.
“It very much felt like students couldn’t talk about how they felt [about] the suicides and their own mental health,” Nishar says. “There is still a lot of stigma with mental health and I think that schools approached it too gently.”
Nishar, who experiences seasonal affective disorder and social anxiety, says the social climate at the time deterred students from discussing mental illness. Silenced by an unspoken taboo, Nishar felt pressured to stifle her struggles and put up an unfazed facade.
“I felt like, ‘everyone else is doing so well, why am I not doing so well?’” Nishar says. “Not everyone is doing so well, but because we don’t talk about these things, everyone feels like [others are] reaching successes that you’re not, and that … take[s] a toll on people.”
Starting the summer after her senior year, Nishar began volunteering with Crisis Text Line. As a crisis counselor, Nishar’s role is to help texters gain control over their own situations.
“Knowing that you have support from at least one person can help you make it through the day.”
— Shivani Nishar, Castilleja alum
“It seems so simple, but knowing that you have support from at least one person can help you make it through the day,” Nishar says. “Being able to be that person, I think, is incredibly humbling.”
Through volunteering, Nishar hopes to not only help those on the line but also change the narrative surrounding mental health.
“I am young and I don’t have certifications, but … it doesn’t take a professional therapist to solve people’s problems or to help,” Nishar says. “You just have to hear people out and be a good friend.”