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therapy & medication

What to Expect When Calling a Helpline

When you're feeling overwhelmed and isolated, hotline counseling offers a quick and convenient way to find trained support. Learn more about how helplines work as well as their benefits and limitations.

Sad man checking mobile phone

If you're thinking about suicide, please read Are You Feeling Suicidal?, call 988 in the U.S., or find a suicide helpline in your country at IASP or Suicide.org.

What is a helpline?

Whether you're dealing with trauma, depression, addiction, or some other mental health issue, you might feel overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness. In some cases, that helplessness is accompanied by feelings of intense shame, guilt, self-loathing, or even suicidal thoughts.

It's important to remember that this pain is temporary and can be treated. However, isolation can intensify your feelings, so you should reach out for help as soon as possible. Helplines give you the opportunity to shed that sense of loneliness and connect with a live and caring person while still maintaining your anonymity.

Helpline, hotline, or crisis line chat services are fairly straightforward. You call or text to talk with someone who's ready to listen, offer feedback, suggest resources, and provide comfort. If the situation is dire, the person on the other end of the phone may also be able to contact local services for immediate help. However, in many cases, callers find that simply talking through their problems is enough to provide relief. Helplines also exist to help people who are concerned about loved ones or who are acting as caretakers.

Each year, millions of people reach out for hotline counseling. To give you an idea of how many people use these resources, here's some recent data:

  • The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's (SAMHSA) National Helpline received 833,598 calls in 2020.
  • The National Domestic Violence Hotline received 636,968 calls, online chats, and texts in 2020.
  • The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline received 2,392,790 calls in 2020.

Types of helplines

You might imagine helplines as being resources just for people who are in crisis or thinking of suicide. Although some helplines do serve that very purpose, others focus on different types of mental health concerns. In fact, you don't have to be in immediate danger to call a helpline. Some examples of helplines include:

Other helplines focus on specific groups of people. For example, if you're a teenager, parent, veteran, or LGBTQ+ individual, you can often find hotlines that cater to your specific needs. You can also find support lines that specialize in ADHD and autism. Calling one of these hotlines can increase the odds that you talk to someone who can relate to your situation. After all, a teenager struggling with depression may have different needs than a stressed parent, for example, or a veteran with PTSD.

Common concerns about calling a helpline

Feeling hesitant or nervous about calling a helpline? That's completely normal. It's not always easy to be emotionally vulnerable or to talk about sensitive matters with a stranger over the phone. Here are some reasons why people may hesitate to reach out, and why you shouldn't let those factors deter you.

Fear of being judged. If you're nervous about being judged, you might feel relieved to know you can offer as little or as much information as you want. You can choose to remain completely anonymous.

Not sure what to say. Doing a little preparation before the call can help you organize your thoughts and feel more comfortable. Write down a quick list of your greatest concerns. Keep the paper and pencil nearby, so you can write down any information the helpline worker has to offer.

Unsure if the call will be helpful. Callers can and often do choose to remain anonymous, so it's not easy to gauge the effectiveness of helplines. However, one 12-month study of 5,001 calls across five different crisis lines found that nearly all of the surveyed callers found the services useful.

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What to expect during a helpline call

Knowing what to expect during a helpline call may help you feel a little more at ease. Your call experience will vary based on which line you call, why you're calling, and the severity of the situation. In general, here's what to expect.

In many cases, the first voice you hear on the helpline may be an automated one. If the service is having a busy night, the automated message will tell you to stay on the line until a worker is available. In other cases, the message may offer you additional options, such as the option to switch languages.

After the automated message, you'll talk to either a volunteer or counselor. Counselors may have more professional experience in offering mental health services, but volunteers are also trained to provide support. Some helplines also provide peer support, linking you up with someone who has experienced a similar situation as the one you face. No matter who you end up talking to, you can rest assured they're ready to help.

Starting the conversation

The helpline worker will ask a few questions to gain an understanding of your situation and get the conversation started. For example, they may ask, “How can I help you?” or “What led you to reach out today?” They might also ask for your first name, age, preferred pronouns, or location so they can offer better service, but you're not obligated to offer any of that information.

When you're calling a crisis hotline for help, the call might begin with an assessment of your situation. A helpline worker will want to know if you're in immediate danger so they can determine the quickest way to help. For example, if you need medical attention ASAP, the helpline might help you locate the nearest urgent care center. If you're in a domestic abuse situation, a helpline worker could possibly call the local law enforcement to your location, if requested.

If you don't require crisis support, where does the conversation go from there? That’s up to you. Now is the time to refer to any notes you wrote down before the call. You can explain your current circumstances and emotions and then work backward to explain what led you to this point. When you're calling on behalf of someone else, you might want to describe things like their mental health symptoms or how their behavior has changed over time. For example, if you suspect a friend is suicidal, you might want to offer examples of things that they recently said.

[Read: Suicide Prevention]

Telling your story

There’s no particular way you have to tell your story. But keep in mind that the helpline worker is starting the conversation with very little information.

Here are a few other things to keep in mind during the helpline chat:

  • Don’t feel rushed. You can take your time to gather your thoughts throughout the conversation. These calls are free and many lines are available 24/7.
  • You don’t have to disclose any details you’re uncomfortable sharing.
  • Your problems matter. Don't hesitate to bring up an issue because you're worried it might be too insignificant or too intense to share.

What to expect from a helpline worker

Helpline workers are active listeners and ask questions that can help you process your emotions and situation. They’re not there to make judgments, tell you what to do, or prescribe remedies, like medication. However, some will offer advice and intervention ideas. You might also find that talking to someone helps you think more clearly or gain useful insights.

Depending on the circumstances, a helpline worker might help you make an action plan that covers what to do next. Having a plan can give you a sense of empowerment, no matter what you’re dealing with.

This plan might involve:

  • Creating a list of friends and family members you can reach out to during a crisis.
  • Identifying local resources that may be useful in the future.
  • Deciding on steps to take, such as looking for a therapist for long-term support.

When you're calling on behalf of someone else, an action plan may focus on ways you can nudge that person in a better direction or help them find local support. Ultimately, your loved one must decide whether or not they personally want to seek help.

Choosing a helpline

Sorting through all of the helpline options might seem like an overwhelming task, especially when you're already feeling desperate for emotional support. Here are a few quick steps on how to find a suitable helpline:

  1. Sort through HelpGuide's directory of helplines based on your country.
  2. Go to the section that best matches your personal needs. Are you struggling with an addiction? Are you feeling suicidal? Are you a caregiver or veteran?
  3. Consider your preferences. Will it be easier for you to communicate with someone via phone call, online chat, or text?
  4. Select any one of the helplines that match your needs.

After the call, evaluate how you feel. Did you feel comfortable throughout the call? Did it seem like the worker could empathize with what you were going through or offer useful advice? If so, record the number in case you need it in the future. If you weren't satisfied with the call, consider reaching out to a different helpline.

Alternatives to calling

Not everyone likes talking over the phone, and this can be especially true for younger people. But you can still find alternatives to calling a helpline. Consider reaching out through a text helpline or online chat service. Both types of services allow you to communicate by typing in your messages. This can have a less formal feel and make it easier to share your thoughts.

Just like traditional hotlines, these services are confidential. Some of them will follow the same process as hotlines, beginning with an automated message before connecting you to a volunteer or a counselor.

When to seek other resources

Helplines are a great go-to resource when you want to immediately talk to someone. However, they have their limitations. For example, a helpline worker can't offer you long-term counseling, which is critical if you have ongoing mental health struggles.

If you're wondering if therapy or a support group might be a better fit than a helpline, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you find yourself frequently calling helplines but feel it's not enough?
  • Has a helpline worker suggested you look for long-term or in-person mental health support?
  • Do you want to build rapport with a mental health professional and receive more personal support?
  • Would you like to work on issues jointly with a spouse, parent, or another family member?
  • Do you feel you would benefit from talking over your problems in a group setting?

If you've answered yes to any of those questions, consider enrolling in a support group or looking into one of the many available forms of therapy. You can choose from one-on-one or group sessions with a therapist and discuss anything from grief and past trauma to marital problems and work stressors.

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Benefits of therapy

A therapist can:

  • Help you identify unhealthy patterns and underlying issues, such as unresolved guilt.
  • Suggest useful practices that improve emotional, cognitive, and social wellness.
  • Work with you to set goals and evaluate progress over time.

You can also find group sessions with people who deal with similar issues as you. For example, people with similar substance abuse concerns may meet regularly for group sessions. These sessions offer a way to develop a support network of people who know what you're going through.

Online therapy is another option, but it isn't for everyone. You might appreciate the convenience of talking to a therapist without leaving your home. Or you might find that your home Internet connection isn't enough to sustain a video call. Some people find that it's harder to connect emotionally with a therapist without being in the same room.

[Read: Online Therapy: Is it Right for You?]

Whether you opt for remote or in-person therapy, finding the right therapist for you may require some trial and error. You may also need to weigh the financial cost of therapy and keep your eyes open for affordable options. In the meantime, remember that helpline workers can continue to offer quick and free comfort whenever you need it. Whatever you're going through, you don't have to face it alone.

Author: Sheldon Reid

    Get more help

    What happens if I call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline? – What to expect when calling a crisis line. (Mental Health America)

    When You Call a Suicide Hotline – Written by someone who’s worked at a helpline. (Hollis Easter)

    What to Know When Calling a Helpline – Tips for young people. (Youth Era)

    Find a helpline

    Browse HelpGuide’s directory of Mental Health Helplines around the world.

    Last updated: November 2, 2022