The New York Magazine‘s new Science of Us section has an interesting review of a new documentary on hotlines – whether they be for suicide support or phone sex.
I was initially annoyed at the fact that the documentary puts both of these in the same category but it’s based on the interesting premise that hotlines – whether for mental health, sex or supporting members of a particular marginalised community – often involve the common component of lonely people reaching out to connect with a stranger, briefly, through conversation.
I don’t know how good the documentary is, I haven’t seen it, but interestingly the review was by an writer who himself had worked on a mental health support lines.
As a result the piece has some wonderfully insightful points about the emotional experience of working as a telephone support counsellor. I was really struck by this section:
Hotline mentions the masturbators, at least — cretins who call up and simply breathe heavily into their phones as they do their thing (at Samaritans, I never had to deal with them because they’d hang up and call back until a female picked up the phone). But the film doesn’t delve into other common experiences volunteers go through, such as how it feels to listen to and empathize with a desperate-sounding 12-year-old girl for seven devastating minutes, only to hear her — and the friends who have apparently been in the room with her the whole time — crack up with laughter, revealing her whole soul-crushing story of sexual abuse to have been a prank.
The problem is, after you’ve hung up angrily on the masturbator or the slumber-party pranksters, your phone is inevitably going to ring in another minute or five, and you have to somehow return to that place of empathy and openness, because the next person who calls may really need your help. It’s a strange sort of emotional bombardment, and Hotline missed an opportunity to unpack it a bit.
In the support hotline world, these callers are known as ‘wankers and prankers’ and they are surprisingly common. You probably wouldn’t imagine that people phone up suicide hotlines to whack off or wind people up, but it is common enough that most services have specific procedures to deal with these nuisance callers.
Many of these lines have a policy where the hotline attender doesn’t hang up on the caller, because people with the most disordered ways of accessing the services might be the ones who need it most.
To deal with this, some services have a specific person each shift whose job it is to listen to persistent masturbators. When they call they can just ask for ‘Julie’, or some other code name, and be passed on to the designated nuisance call monitor, who listens out for any signs that the person has something relevant they want to discuss.
This reduces the number of times people in the front line have the emotionally jarring experience of going from distressed suicidal people to ‘wankers and prankers’, meaning they’re better able to be open and empathetic for people who need it, and are less emotionally drained themselves.
It’s a strange corner of the mental health support world which has to overcome the foibles and dysfunction of social behaviour for which it was never designed to address.
Link to review of Hotline documentary.