Established in 1976, Reachout is a free, non-judgmental crisis and information hotline serving residents of St. Lawrence County. It answers after-hours calls for many other human services agencies as well as operates a mobile crisis team that sends trained counselors to meet and assess people at risk. Reachout provides a vital service to our community. For example, in 2005 alone, Reachout logged over 28,000 calls. I completed the training and became an official volunteer at Reachout in the Spring of 2019. It was one of the most unique experiences I’ve had in my life not only because of the nature of crisis hotline itself but the special environment and community of Reachout.
There is limited research regarding crisis hotline in general, not to mention a small organization in the North Country. Therefore, I decided to focus my research on Reachout. I gathered qualitative data through interviews with current and former volunteers to collect more specific details. My study aimed at providing information for anyone who wants to learn more about crisis hotlines and, more specifically, a suicide intervention service in one of the poorest counties in New York state.
The research was conducted by interviewing selected staff and volunteers who have been a member of Reachout for a significant period of time. They were asked pre-selected questions that were designed to reflect their experiences at Reachout. A total of 14 volunteers agreed to participate and were interviewed for this research. We had participants who were college students, local community members, and those who moved away from the North Country but were helping out now with the remote system during the pandemic.
Among the limited research I found regarding crisis hotlines, the following studies not only investigated what encouraged people to be volunteers but also correlations between motivations and some volunteer skills. Aguirre and Bolton (2013) demonstrated a method called qualitative interpretive meta-synthesis (QIMS) to further the knowledge base related to volunteers’ motivations. They generated six themes of crisis volunteers’ motivations among which altruism and volunteer existentialism were prominent. The former refers to when the volunteers were motivated by hoping to help others and make others feel good. The latter is a theme represented in all of the studies in their meta-synthesis and was described as “doing a good deed” and “experiencing value” according to the study. Another previous study regarding volunteers’ motivations was conducted by Lear (2010) which focused on volunteers of suicide hotlines. This study not only looked at motivations of volunteers but also found that they can reflect a volunteer’s effectiveness and retention rate. Moreover, according to Barz (2001), volunteers can be effective regardless of their reasons for volunteering. The results also showed that crisis intervention volunteers, especially those with more experience, had effective empathy skills, supporting the use of trained volunteers in suicide prevention/crisis intervention agencies.
Being a volunteer not only creates positive outcomes but possibly results in negative effects according to Seeley (1995). She discussed the distortions of caring that can take place when the volunteer is not well trained or supervised, such as to encourage the caller to continue the conversation after the therapeutic goals of the call have been met. These distortions could lead to several problems, such as burnout by the volunteer, real or perceived harm to the caller, or even a life-threatening situation for the volunteer or caller. Furthermore, there are other potential difficulties for volunteers during shifts, for example, an inappropriate caller.