by Rebekah Benoit
Sometimes in a moment of crisis, the most important support we can offer is an ear to listen.
These are the words of wisdom of Madeline Austen, crisis line program coordinator for Fort McMurray’s Some Other Solutions (SOS). Austen is more than just a coordinator – she’s been offering an ear to listen and a helping hand to people in crisis for more than 20 years as a crisis line listener.
“I like to help people. I’ve always had that desire to help people when they’re in crisis, in that critical moment. That’s when they need someone to help them get beyond that point, and get to the other side,” Austen explains of what drew her to her role as a listener. “That transition can look very different [from person to person], but when people think that they just can’t make it through, that’s when something in me always rises up, to want to help that person grasp that yes, there is help. You don’t have to do it alone. You can get beyond this point, and others have done it too.”
Austen has been working with SOS in Fort McMurray for eight years, recruiting and training volunteers to man the 24-hour crisis line that offers support and help to people when they need it most. Austen also does her share of listening and providing a helping hand to callers in crisis. For those considering suicide, this lifeline can literally mean the difference between life and death.
“Crisis is the moment when normal coping skills fail,” Austen explains of why people make the call for help, adding that there are many different reasons why a person’s normal coping mechanisms may fail them, leaving them open to the risk of suicide. “It could be the first time they’ve experienced [a particular stressor or trauma], it could be something very traumatic that has happened to them, or something they didn’t anticipate. We’ve all heard the phrase, ‘I just froze – I didn’t know what to do,’ and this is what people are experiencing when they’re in crisis.”
What makes one person more vulnerable to crisis than another? “It depends on the resources a person has, what they’ve learned and gleaned from live in previous areas,” Austen says. “Some people are better able to move on [from stressful situations or traumatic events] than others. Our job is to help them see that they are their own resource, to see that there is hope beyond his moment and people around to help them.”
When people in crisis, including those calling because they are thinking about suicide, call the crisis line, the first step is to de-escalate the situation, Austen says. “When someone is in a critical crisis moment, they can’t see beyond it, around it or behind it,” Austen explains. “The first thing we do is de-escalate so that the person can refocus on what’s going on, and begin to realize, with the help of the listener, that they can get beyond this point.”
The key to de-escalating a crisis situation is as simple as it is profound, says Austen: listen. “First of all, you have to allow the caller those few moments to pour it all out, to say whatever they want to say,” she says. “There’s nothing so bad as being cut off when you’re trying to make a point, and this is especially true for someone in crisis. You have to allow them that time to vent.”
Once a person has reached a semblance of calm, crisis line listeners work with callers to help them see alternative and solutions to the crisis they’re experiencing. For someone considering suicide, seeing alternative options to their current mental state can be difficult without outside help.
“The work of a crisis line listener is to help the caller see that there is hope, that there is help,” Austen says. “We help them to see what their options are, and quite often they’ll say, ‘I never thought of that.’ It’s seeing their situation through a fresh set of eyes, from a different perspective.
For Austen, who has taken calls over the years from people considering suicide, making that call is a true cry for help. “They’re hoping to find a reason not to do this. I’ve always felt like this is their last cry for help,” she says. “There’s a lot around the subject of suicide that we still don’t understand – everyone’s situation is different – but if they’re thinking of suicide as a way out, I try to help them talk about it and see a better way.”
“There’s a reason why they’ve reached out and connected,” she says.
For some people at risk for suicide, the crisis line provides an anonymous, non-judgmental source of help which might be difficult to come by among friends and family. Austen acknowledges that there is a lot of stigma around the topic of suicide in general, and a prevailing belief that bringing up the topic of suicide might encourage someone to take their own life.
“There’s just no proof of that,” Austen says of the idea that talking about suicide increases the risk. In fact, she argues, the opposite is true. “It’s good to give people the opportunity to talk and express themselves without feeling like they’re going to be judged,” Austen says. She suggests that, if you suspect someone is considering suicide, an open and direct approach is best.
“Don’t be afraid to approach that individual that you have concern for. It might be the best thing you can do to get them to open up and share,” she says. “If you sense, for some reason, that a person you know might be considering suicide, just ask them, ‘Have you been thinking about suicide?’ If the answer is no, that’s good. But if the individual says, ‘Yes, I’m struggling with this,’ you can step in and help them.”
While crisis line listeners often represent a vital lifeline to those in our community that are vulnerable in suicide, volunteers are always in short supply. One of the factors that can intimidate potential crisis line listeners is the idea that they need to provide counseling to callers and are responsible for solving complex mental health issues. Austen says that this is not the case – a crisis line listener’s responsibility is primarily to listen, rather than talk.
“People think you need to have all of these specific skills and abilities, but the main thing a person needs is a desire to help,” Austen says. “It’s amazing what you can do for a person with that motivation. Quite often when a person calls, they are their own resource. They know what they need and what they have to do, but they don’t know how to actually get to doing it.”
“It’s about empathy,” she adds.
SOS is always looking for crisis line volunteers. No special skills or education is needed, and SOS provides in-depth training and mentoring to crisis line volunteers. To find out how you can become a crisis line listener and potentially save a life, contact SOS at 780-743-8605 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
“I believe everyone can find satisfaction in knowing that they’ve helped someone,” Austen says. “There’s no better way to help someone than helping them change their life.”