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What can I expect when contacting a helpline?

Illustration of two people inside separate phones working together to bandage a wounded heart, representing online empathy

Reaching out for help is one of the bravest - and most difficult - things to do when you're struggling.

Helplines - also known as hotlines, crisis lines, or crisis call centres - provide immediate, emotional support to people like you, all over the world.

If you're used to keeping everything to yourself, or you've never reached out to a helpline before, you may be feeling a little unsure about what to expect. This uncertainty can add additional stress or anxiety to an already difficult time.

For some, knowing what to expect, or going in prepared, can help ease anxiety and make it easier to take that step. Here are some answers to common questions

Usually, there are three options for who you might talk to on the other end of the phone, text or online chat

  • Volunteers - People who have received some training in how to listen and help. They are usually not paid by the helpline.
  • Counselors - People who are employed and trained to provide counselling or psychological support. They may have received formal training.
  • Peers - People who share a similar life experience. They may or may not have training. They are usually not paid by the helpline.

Regardless of the type of support they provide, everyone who works at a helpline is a human who wants to hear what's happening for you. If it's important to you who you talk with, Find A Helpline allows you to filter your search by one or more support types. You can also select a specialty if you feel more comfortable with a helpline providing specialized support.

For many, one of the biggest sources of anxiety when calling a helpline for the first time is knowing what to say. In a situation where everything feels overwhelming, it's difficult to know where to begin.

Starting the conversation

It might feel helpful to practice what you want to say, or write down a few key points you want to talk about.

Here's some sentence starters that might help...

  • Things are hard at the moment, because...
  • Lately I've been feeling...
  • I'm dealing with [feeling or situation] at the moment, and...
There's no wrong way to say it

Remember, the supportive person on the other end is there for you. They're there to hear your story and your struggles, as you experience it. There's no right or wrong way to tell someone about what's going on for you. You can tell them as much or as little as you feel comfortable with - you won't be forced to disclose anything you're not ready to talk about.

Helplines exist to provide a confidential, non-judgemental space and provide immediate support, counselling and information.

You can talk about anything

You can contact a helpline to talk, no matter how big or small you think your issue is. You don't have to be in crisis to deserve support with what you're dealing with - the person on the other end will help you to talk through your problem and draw out insights and helpful next steps.

They'll help you stay safe

If you are in a moment of crisis, and you need help right now, the helpline will help you to calm down and keep safe. If the helpline deals with crisis, they may do what is called a risk assessment, which helps them to determine whether you're feeling suicidal and might need immediate help right now. If you are feeling suicidal, the person will listen to understand how intense your thoughts and feelings are, and may help you make a plan to stay safe in the moment.

You can find the right help

Some helplines are specialized, meaning they provide a specific type of support, or help to a certain community. For example, members of the LGBTQ+ community may feel more comfortable contacting a helpline for rainbow people. Other helplines provide more general support, and will take calls from anybody, about anything they want to talk about.

Find A Helpline categorizes helplines by topic and specialty, so it will always be clearly indicated what topics a helpline supports with, and whether they specialize in helping a certain group of people. This makes it easy to find the right help for you, and removes any uncertainty about whether you're contacting the right place for your situation.

It's normal to feel unsure about contacting a helpline, especially if you've never done it before.

A study by researchers at Harvard University identified some key reasons why people in a moment of distress may feel unsafe or uncomfortable reaching out for help from crisis resources.

I just want to chat

A lot of people feel this. Contacting a helpline can sound intense, but needing to chat is actually the reason they exist. Most helplines, even if they support people experiencing a crisis, aren't limited to only supporting people in intense situations.

A dedicated category of helplines called ‘warmlines' also exist for the sole purpose of supporting those who just want to chat. These are run by peers with lived experience of mental health struggles. You can find warmlines on Find A Helpline by refining your search by specialty.

I don't like using the phone / I don't have a phone

A large number of people would prefer to talk to someone via text or online chat, or don't have a phone to call a helpline. This is a very common preference, and many helplines are moving their services online. For many, accessing helplines via text or online chat can feel less formal, allowing you to feel more comfortable talking about difficult topics.

I don't want the police called

Some people fear that if they contact a helpline then the police will be called. For a lot of people, this thought can cause stress and anxiety. Helplines often have a legal or ethical obligation to keep all your information confidential unless they believe that you, or somebody else, is in immediate danger.

If you are feeling suicidal, a helpline will help you to stay safe in the moment and will not call the police unless they believe you are about to carry out a plan to hurt yourself or someone else and can’t work towards safety.

The thoughts I'm having are too intense

When experiencing distressing thoughts and feelings, it's common to feel like these are too intense to share with another person - especially when you're unsure how they will respond.

People who work at helplines are trained and willing to listen to whatever you have to say, and have experience helping others going through exactly what you are right now. No matter what you're feeling, you'll be offered a non-judgemental listening ear, and help to move forward in a way that is meaningful to you.

I don't trust professionals

Many people who experience emotional or mental health distress have never spoken to a professional before, or have had a negative experience. While professional support from trained counselors can be extremely helpful, you may prefer to speak to someone like you.

Most helplines are staffed by volunteers, who give their time to help people because they care about others. Some helplines are staffed by peers, who are people that share a similar experience. There are also peer-support lines called "warmlines" run entirely by people with lived experience of mental health struggles.

Find A Helpline allows you to filter your search to display only helplines offering volunteer or peer support, if this is what feels right for you.

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