helping


I’m settling in for my second shift for my university’s crisis line, and my first overnight shift. It was a beautiful day, and it was difficult to drag myself into our underground lair, but here I am until 8 tomorrow morning. It’s a pretty nice little room, painted earth tones and with lots of nice nature photography framed on the walls. I have my own bathroom, TV, computer, fridge, microwave, bed, and, of course, coffee maker. I don’t plan on drinking any coffee. If no one calls, I’d like to be able to get to sleep tonight. I’m anticipating being able to sleep fine. It’s very quiet here, and the room gets very dark with the lights off. That is, unless someone calls–the phone rings very loudly. And it’s also possible that the possibility of getting a call will keep me up–I haven’t had a call yet. We’ll see!

The first thing I do is make sure the phones are working. We have two, one for crisis calls, and one backup. I have a backup colleague and two supervisors that I can call or text if I get in over my head. I can also bring them in on a three-way call, if it seems the right thing to do. I don’t anticipate that, but it’s nice to know I can. They are all very experienced at this job.

The next thing I do is look over the call sheets since my last shift. Every call gets its own sheet. It’s been pretty slow in the last week–only a few calls. It’s tempting to think that that means it’s unlikely I’ll get a call tonight, but I have no idea. I also looked back a couple months to see if there was any easily recognizable pattern for Friday shifts, but there wasn’t. Just in our current call sheet book we have calls going back about a year, and I believe that we have sheets for many years around somewhere. This line has been running for about 40 years. (And, unfortunately, the administration is shutting us down at the end of this term, for beaurocratic reasons.) I would love to enter all this info into a stats program and look for patterns! I don’t believe I would be allowed to do that, though. There would be no way to get consent from our past “research participants.” The line is totally anonymous.

The next thing I do is look at our “regular caller” book. I didn’t know this about hotlines, but there are people who use them regularly, mostly very isolated individuals, taking advantage of a free, professinal listening service to help them deal with their troubles. Pretty smart thing to do, really. It had never occurred to me. We have extensive files on these folks, sometimes going back decades. They have “contracts,” too–agreements they’ve made with us about how often and what times they can call, because they don’t tend to be in crisis, just needing some listening. The regular caller book has all the regular caller call sheets, a record of their current contracts, and a list of their calls with how much time they have left until a certain date.

Then I wait for someone in crisis to call. We define a crisis as a situation where a person’s stress overcomes their ability to cope. This can happen a lot of different ways. Our call sheets have the following categories, in addition to “other”: academic, alcohol/drugs, anxiety (popular one), bereavement/grief (another popular one), depression (popular), domestic violence, eating disorder, harassment/descrimination, homocide, information/referral, interpersonal/relationship (popular), loneliness, medical/somatic, psychosis, sexual abuse/rape, sexual concerns, sexually exploitive (this is where a caller tries to use us as a masterbation aid), sexual orientation/gender ID, and suicide (also popular).

When someone calls, I am to go through a six-step process with them. 1) Assess for immidiate danger (“Are you in a safe place to talk?”), 2) establish communication and rapport, 3) assess the problem (keep it to one–the biggest problem–and make it specific, as vague problems are almost impossible to solve), 4) assess strengths and resources, 5) formulate a short-term (tonight) and long-term (tomorrow) plan, and 6) mobilize the client, obtaining commitment to the plan and contracting for safety if they have been thinking about suicide. Throughout the process I am to be assessing the potential for suicidality, listening for clues like “feeling overwhelmed,” “worthless”–any indication that they might be thinking about hurting themselves. If that comes up, I have another process to go to. Maybe I’ll write about that in another post.

Well, wish me luck. I’m not sure what being lucky would be. It’s easy to hope for no calls–“no news is good news,” as my dad likes to say. On the other hand, if someone is out there in trouble, I really want them to call. I’d feel lucky to get to help someone out of a jam. That’s something to know. Crisis line workers want you to call if you need help. We’re not particularly doing this for the money. I make something like $85 per shift. Not a lot.

If no one does call, I’m planning to study until I get tired and then go to bed. I’ll let you know what happens. I won’t be able to tell you the details, of course, but I can say if I got a call.

Here’s part 2. (And if you missed it, here’s part 1.) Again, if you are either interested or skeptical, leave me a comment and I’ll point you to the evidence.

Statistically, Divorce is Not a Good Strategy for Getting a Better Marriage: 50 to 67% of first marriages end in divorce. 60 to 77% of second marriages end in divorce.

Your Brain Has Trouble Giving Information About Probabilities Due Weight, So Pay Attention to Base Rates: We have trouble taking the actual prevalence of events into account when making decisions. For example, people tend to be more afraid of dying in a plane crash (lifetime chance: 1 in 20,000) than dying in a car wreck (lifetime chance: 1 in 100) or even of a heart attack (lifetime chance: 1 in 5). One reason for this is that we confuse the ease with which we can think of an example to be an indication of how likely something is. Try this: What do you think is more common, words beginning with “r” or words with “r” as the third letter?

If You Test Positive For a Very Rare Disease, You Still Probably Do Not Have That Disease: This is a headline that should come from medicine, not psychology, but psychologists are better at probability than doctors, who are no better than laypeople, at least when it comes to thinking about this: Even with a very accurate test, if a disease is very rare, a positive result is still much more likely to be a false positive than an accurate positive. I’m going to explain this, but if you don’t get it, don’t worry. Just remember the headline. It’s true.

The table below shows a hypothetical situation with super-round numbers to make it easier to get. You have gotten positive results on a test that is 99% accurate for a disease that occurs only once in 10,000 people. Most people figure they are 99% likely to have the disease. They are wrong:

Test Results
Disease Present? Test Results Positive Test Results Negative Row Totals
Disease Present 99 1 100
Disease Not Present 9,999 989,901 999,900
Column Totals 10,098 989,902 1,000,000

Since your test results are positive, you are somewhere in the left-hand column. You are either one of the 99 who both have the disease and whose test results are positive, called “hits,” or one of the 9,999 who do not have the disease but whose test results are positive, called “false positives.” As you may see, even though your test results are positive, you still are 99% likely to be a false positive and not a hit, simply because the disease is so rare.

Yes, this is counter-intuitive. That’s why it’s important. And that’s why statistics are important. Again, if you don’t understand, don’t worry. If you don’t believe it, though, come up with a specific question, leave it as a comment, and I’ll answer it.

If You Need Help, Ask Someone Specific for Something Specific: Bystanders generally do not help people who are in trouble. The bigger the crowd, the less likely someone will help. It’s not because they are bad or lazy. It’s a specific kind of well-documented confusion. Kind of like in the clip below. What you need to know is, if you need help, even if it seems like it should be completely obvious to anyone around, like you’re having a heart attack, falling to the ground, gasping, whatever, point to a specific person and give them specific instructions: “You, in the red shirt. I’m having a heart attack. Call an ambulance.” Do not assume anything will happen that you did not specifically ask for. A corollary of this headline is, if you think someone might be in trouble, don’t assume they would ask you for help, and don’t assume someone else is helping them. Help them yourself. It could mean the difference between them living or dying.

Get Help For Your Marriage When the Trouble Starts (Or Before): On average, couples wait 6 years after their marriage is in trouble to get help. The average marriages last 7 years. That means that most people who come to couples counseling are deeply entrenched in problems that would have been relatively easy to resolve earlier. It is not uncommon for a couple to come in to counseling with a covert agenda to use the counselor to make their inevitable divorce easier. We can do this, but believe me we’d much rather meet you earlier and help you stay together! Also, I’m not joking about “or before.” Couples counselors are well-trained to give “tune-ups” to couples who are doing well. It’s a good idea.

Anger Is Not Destructive of Relationships, Contempt and Defensiveness Are: Everybody argues. Everybody screws up their communications. It’s the ability to repair things that is the key, and contempt and defensiveness get in the way of that.