Ever since I’ve known Iman, she’s been thoughtful, studious, and probably more intelligent than 90% of the people she meets. Iman also volunteers for a crisis line, and agreed to share the unique perspective of the person on the other side of the line. She’s the one that often talks people down from the ledge and is the ear who listens when it feels no one else will. Her views may not be what you’re expecting, but they are undoubtedly true and important for everyone to remember.
Lessons From The Crisis Line
When Ameera first asked me to write something for this project, my immediate response was that I had no story to tell. I spend a lot of time listening to other people’s stories on the crisis line and through research in psychology, but I definitely don’t have my own. But recently, I realized how much of a privilege it is to be able to listen to these stories and to be able to ask questions and work in a field where I can try to better understand the why behind mental illness. I’ve spent the past few months pushing myself to be a better ally to those struggling… here’s what I’ve learned:
- Asking for help will always be difficult (but you should do it anyway). Whether you’re calling a crisis line for the first time or texting your friend for the millionth time, it’s hard. More often than not, I pick up the phone or answer an instant message chat to someone saying “I’m sorry to bother you” or “I don’t know if I called the right place- I mean I’m not really in crisis”. The first lesson I’ve learned is to acknowledge the effort that it takes to reach out, regardless of how many times someone has already done so.
- Resources are NOT always the answer. It’s really easy to throw resources at people and think we are helping. I’m not a professional so I’ll send you to one…but honestly, finding a resource that fits is even harder than finding that perfect bikini or the cookie recipe that is just right. Sending someone to a resource that isn’t right for them or one with a long wait time to access help can be extremely harmful. I learned this the hard way when a caller on the crisis line hung up on me because they had called multiple times and been sent to resources that wouldn’t take them for various reasons; by the time the caller spoke with me, they were so fed up with feeling like they would never find something that matched their needs. Don’t get me wrong, there are many resources that are helpful, but we need to be mindful in how we use them. It’s important to take into account wait times, financial barriers, cultural barriers, and stigma within the healthcare system before we blindly throw resources at people.
- Empathy doesn’t require having experienced the same things as someone else. We may not have all experienced depression, but we have all been sad/tired/dejected/hopeless at some point. We haven’t all experienced an anxiety disorder but we have all been anxious. We may not have all experienced bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, a personality disorder, an eating disorder, or an addiction. But we all know what it’s like to be overwhelmed, to not understand, and to be stuck. If you don’t understand, ask. If you don’t have the words, just be present.
- You don’t have to have a mental illness to talk about mental health. Last year, I cut off 15 inches of my hair for cancer and I was met with nothing but praise and support. I was never asked why I did it or if I knew someone with cancer. In contrast, when I talk about mental health or tell people I volunteer at the crisis centre, people always ask me why I care so much about it. In Canada, mental illness accounts for 31% of overall disability. That’s more than ANY OTHER injury or illness. Being willing to talk about mental health even when you don’t have a mental illness is a HUGE step in reducing the stigma attached to disorders that are killing people every day (3,000 deaths from suicide worldwide EVERY DAY, btw). These stats are easy to throw around, but when someone dies every 40 seconds from ANYTHING, it’s time we all start speaking up about it.
- It’s okay to get frustrated, it’s okay not to know the answers, it’s okay to take a step back but it is NOT okay to give up. It is understandable that sometimes you will hold the pain of other people a little too tightly and blame yourself when they are unable to make progress. It’s also understandable to get annoyed or frustrated when they cancel plans or talk too much about their problems. It’s okay to be overwhelmed. It’s okay to not know how to react. It’s okay to need a break. You are human too and your mental health is also important. BUT if we gave up on everything when it got a little inconvenient or a little too uncomfortable, we would never get anywhere. We all have the capacity to contribute in some way and we can always do more.