Just asking someone "what's wrong?" can make a difference.

By By Kasi Stoops as told to Renee Cherry
June 18, 2018
Photo: ADAM GAULT / SPL / Getty Images

I've always thought of myself as a great listener, but when I started training to take calls for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, I quickly realized I had a lot to learn.

I applied to volunteer for the local crisis center in Texas as a way to beef up my résumé for grad school applications (I want to become a counselor). But to be honest, I didn't know much about suicide or mental health going into it. After making it through a round of interviews, it was on to the 10-week training portion. I learned what real "active listening" looks like: constantly avoiding making the conversation about yourself and granting the person on the phone control of their own situation instead of trying to tell them what to do. (Related: Olivia Munn Just Posted a Powerful Message About Suicide On Instagram)

I was nervous when it came time to answer my first call, and I still get nervous sometimes. I'll constantly question myself: Did I really help them? Are they going to be able to follow through with the plan of action we developed? There are some situations I hear about on these calls that admittedly make it difficult to relate to the person on the other end. That's because I've never had to go through what they are describing. Inside I'm thinking "Oh my god; this is so terrible, I don't even know how I would survive this." As a counselor, not only do I have to refrain from voicing those thoughts, I have to give them the confidence to get through it. I have to focus on my one very important job: help them decide not to commit suicide. I have to help them find their own alternative solution.

The experience has been a real eye-opener to say the least. Before becoming a volunteer, I didn't have a grasp on how widespread mental illness is. Before, I had a notion of who I thought suffered from mental illness. They had some kind of childhood trauma, something that happened to them, etc. But we get a lot of calls from people who are just overwhelmed with the stress of daily life. I've spoken with people who appear to be successful and happy from the outside, but who are suffering internally from a huge burden or stressor.

That's why it's that it's so important to check in with people you know. Risk the awkward conversation. Ask if they're okay or if they might find it helpful to talk to someone. (Related: I'm Done Keeping Quiet About Suicide)

I've also become more aware of how I treat strangers. For instance, I wouldn't want to be the driver with road rage who cuts off a mother with postpartum depression and adds one more problem to her day. Conversely, you never know how a small, but kind or patient gesture might positively affect someone. It could change their entire day. It could be the thing that keeps them alive.

What was originally an effort to improve my grad school prospects ended up benefiting me in ways I could never have imagined. After every four-hour shift, I leave the suicide crisis center feeling renewed because I've helped someone, even if I personally had a difficult time on the call. It's given me another purpose in life, and I feel like, overall, it's helped me become a better human.

I've wondered a lot about why the suicide rate is on the rise in the U.S. and what exactly is going on. (Read more on the epidemic here: What Everyone Needs to Know About the Rising U.S. Suicide Rates) There are so many possible variables that could be responsible for the increase, but no matter what, it's our responsibility to keep up an open dialogue about suicide in public (and in private, if you feel someone needs you).

If you or someone you know needs help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or text 741741, or chat online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.