Student gains insight while volunteering at suicide hotline

Sam Klein, Sports Layout Editor

Volunteers work on the anonymous chat line at Samaritans. Timmerman said the greatest skill she learned there was being supportive. PHOTO BY SAM KLEIN

by Sam Klein

If you need assistance, the Samaritans can be reached here.

Twenty-four hours a day, every single day of the year, there is someone by the phones, waiting for a call. When a phone rings, a volunteer answers it without knowing what to expect.

Sometimes, the person on the phone is suicidal. The potential for those calls is why the phones are constantly occupied.

“This is why we are here,” junior Hannah Timmerman said. “We are here for them.”

Timmerman volunteers at Samaritans, a suicide-prevention agency, for three hours twice a week. Her role is to answer phones, and most of the time on the phone is spent listening.

Timmerman described the feeling of being able to help a caller as cathartic, even though the calls often last just minutes.

“Even hearing just one call from one person who is suicidal is so eye-opening,” Timmerman said.

In 2012, over 40,000 suicides were reported in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Such a large part of each call is spent listening that the callers can forget she is there, Timmerman said. She always tells the caller her name, which, for anonymity, is her first name and a four-digit number at Samaritans.

Timmerman said that she first learned about volunteer opportunities at Samaritans two years ago in her freshman Health and Fitness class. Kelley Cunningham, Samaritans Director of Community Education and Outreach, as well as Catherine Silva ‘14, then a volunteer at Samaritans, came to speak to her class about the opportunity.

Timmerman said she had wanted to sign up immediately, but had to wait until she turned 15. She now is involved with Cunningham’s outreach program, which goes to speak to Brookline 8th graders rather than freshmen.

Teenage volunteers, which include high schoolers at least 15 years old, spend weeks training to volunteer, according to the Samaritans website, Teenagers’ work at Samaritans lasts a minimum of nine months, but many do it for longer.

Cunningham said that teenage volunteers, such as Hannah, become better at listening to people during their tenure at Samaritans, whether in the phone room or simply to their friends after a rough day.

“They are able to really reflect on what a person is saying, and they know how to validate properly, and they do all of the things that you are supposed to do as a good listener,” Cunningham said. “You can definitely see the difference between when a person first starts here and after they have been here for a while.”

Listening is so important at Samaritans that volunteers spend a total of 30 hours training to work in the phone room, learning skills that include how to listen well, Timmerman said.

What volunteers, deemed “befrienders,” hear while on the anonymous phone, chat and text lines is confidential within Samaritans, which means that they are not allowed to talk about the phone calls with people other than those who work at the agency. The only exception is in what are deemed “imminent risk” situations, where the police have to be contacted because a caller is in danger.

Timmerman described her first experience in an imminent risk situation as less scary than expected because of the support she received.

“Having the staff person next to me and having another staff person on the phone who had been there for a long time is definitely helpful,” Timmerman said.

According to Cunningham, teenage volunteers are usually mature and confident in difficult situations.

Timmerman said her ability to listen is important for every call, and that it is apparent because of how little she talks while on the phone at Samaritans.

“I get a caller and they have a long story they want to tell me,” she said. “It is less of me asking questions and saying things, and more just verbal nodding and saying things like, ‘I am here,’ ‘I am so sorry,’ and being there for them.”

Sam Klein can be contacted at [email protected]