Once a year, the young volunteers who typically spend four hours a night answering the Teen Line peer-to-peer hotline expand their shift into a 12-hour marathon of teens listening to other teens.
The Los Angeles-based group will do this again on Saturday, Sept. 12, but during a more stressful time.
This year’s Call-A-Thon is taking place as the coronavirus pandemic seems to be aggravating the kinds of problems — stress, anxiety, physical danger — that come when teens are isolated and staying inside, without access to friends and activities.
Data backs that up. The Teen Line, which takes calls, texts and emails from young people all over the world, has seen a jump in calls about suicide and loneliness.
Specifically, since mid-March, when schools were shuttered as part of the effort to slow the spread of coronavirus, the Teen Line has seen a 140% jump in the number of callers reporting child abuse.
Said Cheryl Eskin, Teen Line program director: “That’s been a really startling thing.”
Teen Line volunteers hear other teens tell them about lack of food in their homes, physical and emotional neglect, violence and sexual abuse, Eskin said.
Because school campuses are closed and other interactions outside of the home, such as taking refuge at a friend’s house, are restricted, callers to the Teen Line typically often are cut off from previous avenues of escape.
“They are just not feeling safe at home,” Eskin said. “And they don’t know where to go.”
While other types of distress haven’t increased as much as child abuse, the overall trend is worrisome.
The number of young people who told Teen Line peers that they’ve had thoughts of suicide went up 16%. The average age of a suicidal caller in Los Angeles County is just 12, according to Teen Line administrators.
Other issues also are on the rise. Reports of self injury increased 24%; feelings of loneliness and dealing with family issues were both up 29%; and reports of anxiety increased 17%.
But Eskin said one category of calls has decreased: school-related problems. Although distant learning is a source of sadness and grief for many teens, others say not going to campus means not having to deal with bullies and social isolation.
Teen Line started in 1980 and is one of six all-youth, peer-to-peer hotlines around the country. Last year, Teen Line handled 21,157 contacts by phone, text and email.
About one-third of the contacts come from young people in California, Eskin said. Nationally, most of the teens who reach out live in three other big states — Texas, Florida and New York. About 5% of the Teen Line contacts are international.
Abi Raderman, 17, has been volunteering with Teen Line for a year. The high school senior from Sherman Oaks tries to work about six evening shifts a month and, since the pandemic, she’s noticed “a lot more teens calling in.” What she’s heard, she says, is disheartening.
A lot of young people simply aren’t able to envision a bright future right now.
“There tends to be less hope in times as uncertain as we’re in. And that is very clearly reflected in the teens my peers and I have talked to,” said Raderman, who has dealt with her own struggles over what she termed “crippling” anxiety and depression. She got help through therapy.
Just being there to answer a call or respond to a text or email can make a difference, said Raderman. By training and instinct, Raderman and her peers help validate a caller’s emotions and then brainstorm coping mechanisms while providing other resources for professional help.
“Every call or text I have had has been so different,” Raderman said.
“But a lot of the times, people just want someone to listen to them.”
Before they’re allowed to offer help, all Teen Line volunteers, ages 14 to 18, go through more than 100 hours of training. That includes discussions on topics from empathy to active listening to handling calls about suicidal ideation. It also includes some time spent observing others at work in the phone room and supervised practice in answering email.
“I’d put them against some of the best therapists,” Eskin said of Teen Line’s 120 or so volunteers.
“And they have that teen perspective.”
They’re also not alone. During Teen Line operating hours, mental health professionals are on hand to offer guidance on more difficult calls. The pros also can assist in providing resources, and keep the responses to calls, texts and emails running smoothly.
And, on occasion, the volunteers need counseling.
“Sometimes our own teens have struggles going on, too,” Eskin said.
With the pandemic, the hotline had to pivot from operating out of space provided at Cedars Sinai Medical Center to an all-virtual format, with volunteers and professionals alike working from home and connecting as a team by Zoom.
This year’s annual Call-A-Thon (the fourth for Teen Line) also will be virtual, taking place from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday. It is intended to raise awareness about the issues young people grapple with, but also functions as a fundraiser. The volunteers have set up fundraising pages on a platform created by Teen Line and are reaching out to friends and family for support.
How to contact Teen Line
Regular hours: 6 to 10 p.m. nightly
Call: 800-852-8336 to speak with a teen volunteer
Text: TEEN to 839863
Email: Go to teenlineonline.org, and click on the email button
Source: Orange County Register