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Please note: This episode of Punk Rock HR covers topics like depression, anxiety and suicide. If you are sensitive to these topics, this episode may not be for you. If you are thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 800-273-8255.
At her day job, Kate Yuan works as a business development executive at Alibaba Cloud. On nights and weekends, she volunteers at her county’s crisis hotline and talks to people who are experiencing suicidal thoughts and ideations.
Just because it’s a new year doesn’t mean that you or the people you love are a new version of themselves. Problems don’t just go away on Jan. 1. That’s why people like Kate are so important. We spoke about what drew Kate to volunteer at a crisis hotline, the importance of being comfortable with our emotions and the five-step process she uses while serving as a suicide hotline volunteer.
What Drew Kate to Serve as a Suicide Hotline Volunteer
Kate was drawn to work at a crisis center by her personal experiences. “I went through a period of depression, and I was very vocal about it,” she says. Many people reached out to Kate about their own struggles with mental health, which inspired Kate to begin volunteering. “I really want to be the listener of what people are going through and be of help,” she says.
Additionally, Kate saw serving as a suicide hotline volunteer as a chance to impact people’s lives, particularly young people. According to the CDC, suicide in 2018 was the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States. However, it was the second-leading cause of death for people age 10 to 34. “That coincides with my own experience,” Kate says. “It just pains me when I think of the long future they have in front of them — but at the same time, the unbearable sense of pain and suffering that they’re going through.”
The STARE Method
When answering the phone at the crisis center, Kate uses what she calls “STARE” for her conversations. It’s a five-step method that allows Kate to help people in need while also giving those suffering the chance to express their emotions in a safe space. It is also a method Kate recommends using if someone is disclosing suicidal thoughts to you.
- Start with how you’re feeling. Ask open-ended questions.
- Try not to problem-solve. Simply listen with attention.
- Assess the situation naturally. Ask questions such as, “Are you thinking of killing yourself?” and “Do you have a plan?”
- Repeat the second step: Listen with attention.
- End the conversation by asking, “How do you feel now? What do you plan to do next?”
Asking open-ended questions is particularly important, Kate says. Most people calling into a hotline are feeling depressed and having passive suicidal thoughts. “So you just need to keep a conversation going,” Kate says. “Usually, 20 to 30 minutes of attentive listening is enough to make someone feel a lot better.”
However, if you find that the person you are speaking with has concrete plans to hurt or kill themselves, you will need to take a different course of action. Keep the conversation going, Kate says, but make sure that you text someone that person’s location and phone number. Instruct the other person to call the National Suicide Hotline for further instructions or call the police to do a welfare check. You can call the National Suicide Hotline at 800-273-8255. If you are in the U.S. or Canada, you can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. (More information about how to reach the Crisis Text Line in other countries can be found on their website.)
Get More Comfortable with Negative Emotions
Ultimately, one of the most important keys to talking with people who are having suicidal thoughts is to be comfortable with their emotions and to empathize with the speaker, not try to problem-solve for them. “Your job is to focus your entire attention on the other person,” says Kate, and to provide a place for them to express their feelings.
Kate believes that we need to become more comfortable with people expressing suicidal thoughts and ideations if we want to help people. “We need to change the way we treat the topic of suicide,” she says. “All of us can experience moments when life is unbearably painful.”
Instead, she says, we should acknowledge suicidal feelings. It’s healthier for us to do so. “The more we can express suicidal thoughts and feelings, the more space we have to decide how to react to them,” Kate says. “Suicidal thoughts or feelings don’t kill someone. It’s the sense of shame and the resulting isolation and loneliness that destroy us.”