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Rachel Huggins

Communications Manager, National Council for Behavioral Health

Answering the Call to Save a Life: Dialing Up to Gen Z in Crisis

September 3, 2020 | Mental Health Treatment | Comments
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The uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic is leaving many young people feeling isolated and exhausted. For those in the throes of crisis, connecting with a compassionate peer who can provide a listening ear and gentle reminder that they’re not alone may make all the difference.

Each year, YouthLine, a confidential, peer-to-peer helpline for youth and young adults ages 13 to 21, (a free service of Lines for Life) provides a safe space to tens of thousands of young people in Oregon and across the nation in need of emotional support at their fingertips. This Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, I sat down with Parker Sczepanik, YouthLine’s assistant director of outreach and education to talk about the ways peer support is essential during uncertain times.

Calling a crisis helpline can be overwhelming. Why is one-on-one support via text message the preferred way most youth prefer to reach out?

Texting can feel a little less intimidating because you’re not connecting with someone right away and it’s more accessible. You could be at your dinner table with family going through crisis and have support in your hand. If you, as a teen, are able to reach out to YouthLine and get support and you have a good interaction, your chances of reaching out again – whether it’s a crisis line, in-person, asking for a therapist or going to your counselor at school – are going to be exponentially increased if you’re having positive interactions around mental health.

It’s really important to check in with yourself and remember how important it is to know that if you are feeling mentally uneasy that you deserve to feel good.

Nearly half of teen callers are mentioning the pandemic’s impact on their mental health. What are some challenges they are expressing?

The mental unease everyone is feeling right now is so intensified because of what we are in. The majority of teens are struggling with their family issues and relationships. The biggest conversation that’s coming up for those who are at home alone is isolation and loneliness, feeling like their natural supports aren’t as readily available and navigating the ways they can take care of themselves when there is less access to social gatherings.

YouthLine is one of only a handful of peer-to-peer lines in the world. What makes the “teens helping teens” approach most impactful?

Peer-to-peer level of interaction is the most relatable and understanding support you can receive. It helps take away the intimidation and apprehension one might have when interacting with someone older than you because you may think they will jump to problem solving too quickly.

As a crisis call center, we offer follow-ups, which isn’t something that’s the norm in crisis work. When we’re finishing up a contact – if it’s a call or text, we’re able to say, “On Monday, do you want us to call you back?” or “When you reconnect with your therapist on Monday, can we reconnect at 5 p.m. and you can tell me how it went?” Having that follow-up can feel like post-care and it’s pretty unique and special that we’re able to provide it.

With more than 100 youth volunteers taking up to 90 calls in a given shift, how do you make sure they feel supported?

Our volunteers are between the ages of 15 and 20. We check in with them about their mental health, physical health and how they are feeling about shifts and providing support. In those conversations, a lot of it is pretty similar to the youth who reach out to us who are struggling: my schedule changed, distance learning sucks or I’m feeling disconnected. We help them navigate the same things they do on the lines – how can we support you and let’s work through this to create self-care plans.

Youth suicide is climbing faster than suicide by any other age group. How can we have conversations all year around that may save a life?

One of the best things anyone can do is provide space for someone to talk about their pain. When it comes to the bigger mental health challenges like suicide, self-injury or really questioning your mental well-being, ask people how they are and be open and direct about what might be going on for them: “I’ve noticed this change in you, and I’m really worried about you. Are you thinking about suicide?”

It’s not an easy thing to do, but getting a little bit uncomfortable sometimes to learn how to ask is very important. And if you can’t ask the question when someone is really struggling, make sure to find someone who can – getting an older adult involved or the trusted people in their lives such as neighbors, counselors and older siblings is really important to make sure that person has a safe space.