Project Happy

How crisis counselors stay happy

Editor’s Note: Need someone to talk to? Call the National Suicide Hotline at 1 (800) 273-8255.

Story highlights

Suicide prevention counselors say self-care is part of the job description

Because they can't bring work home, they turn to co-workers to deal with tough days

Establishing boundaries between work and rest of life is crucial to well-being

CNN  — 

What do we really know about the lives of social workers and crisis counselors, the people who answer suicide hotlines or counsel those who have lost loved ones?

Contrary to what you might expect, many crisis workers – the ones who enjoy their jobs, at least – tell CNN they are happy people. Because the work is rooted in hope and resilience, it tends to attract people with an optimistic view of humanity and a larger-than-average capacity for empathy.

While most crisis workers say they’re drawn to the field to help others, many say they get plenty out of it, too. A fair share get into the work after losing someone to suicide, illness or natural causes and emerging from the abyss with an altruistic bend. No one gets in it for the money, but constant listening and sharing has its own therapeutic benefits, they say.

What can they teach the rest of us about work-life balance? Above all, you have to take care of yourself before you can help others. Self-care is not just something hotline coordinator Erin Jones just preaches to clients and co-workers. “It’s part of my job description,” she said.

Though they have bad days like everyone else, their coping mechanisms are tried and tested. Here’s some of their advice for staying positive.

1. Lean on support groups

Janet Schnell of Jasper, Indiana, was looking for answers after her brother Kent died in 1995 at 30. Why didn’t she notice? Why didn’t she do anything to stop it?

Part of her search meant getting to the root of her brother’s unhappiness. Another led her to a career in social work so she could help others in similar situations. The two went hand in hand, she said.

“I had to be able to talk about my brother’s death before I could lead others.”

Twenty years later, Schnell is a social worker with Survivors of Suicide Dubois County, which serves southern Indiana. A typical day lasts from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., during which she could be taking phone calls or leading a support group for suicide loss survivors. Or, she might be assisting law enforcement at the scene of a suspected suicide, helping with relatives and friends.

How does she make it through the tough days? By doing the same thing she encourages in others: rely on a support group. When she needs to talk through hard calls or days, she turns to her “work family,” which includes members of a peer team.

“The work family understands the stressors you have,” she said. “As a social worker, you can’t share these experiences with your family or friends, but with your work family you can.”

2. Establish boundaries

Don’t take your work home with you, be it paperwork or residual emotions experienced on the job.

Jones thinks of it as taking off a cape and leaving it on a hook at the door of the Birmingham, Alabama, crisis center where she works. Like Schnell, she became a counselor after witnessing her family grieve the death of her uncle.

But, “I can’t be a counselor all the time,” she said. It’s a notion she learned from her therapist, and it helps her remember that in addition to being a crisis hotline coordinator, she’s also a mother, a friend, a daughter.

3. Find ways to disconnect

To decompress from a four-shift at TEEN LINE, Edson Montenegro blasts music on his ride home from Los Angeles to Inglewood.

It clears his head of the phone calls, texts or emails the 18-year-old may have responded to during his shift.

“It shakes off any remnants of the emotional intensity,” Montenegro said. “With this sort of work, you put so much effort into the caller, and you build a relationship, and then you cut it off as soon as phone call ends. You need to make sure you’re cutting those ties completely so you don’t hurt yourself.”

Jones puts away her phone after she leaves work in Birmingham – a welcome reprieve after a day spent answering calls and staring at a computer. She retreats to her home in the country, where she got rid of cable a year ago to minimize screen time for her and her daughter.

There, she takes solace in nature after spending most of her day inside. She might lay in the grass staring at clouds and listening to birds, take long walks or watch her daughter ride her scooter.

4. Process your emotions, good and bad

Most centers have an on-site psychologist or built-in support network for staff to leave nothing unsaid when it comes to dealing with the emotional fallout of a tough day.

“The important thing for people who stay in this business is to talk about stuff and process it. Then you can go home and be with the wife and kids,” said Mike Gaunt, crisis unit manager of Dial Help in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Amelia Lehto also processes her emotions by sharing them with her work family. She started volunteering at Common Ground, a 24-7 resource and crisis center in Oakland County, Michigan, about eight years ago after her mother died of cancer. It grew into a full-time job supervising the crisis line and providing crisis services to the community.

This year, she found another outlet for her grief onstage at an author’s reading. She shared writings about her experiences with motherhood and grieving the loss of her mother.

“It’s a release.”

Amelia Lehto supervises the crisis line at Common Ground resource center in Michigan.

5. Look on the bright side

What most people fail to realize is that simply picking up the phone and dialing a hotline is a step in the right direction, an indicator of hope, said Chad Martin of Martinsville, Virginia.

“Oftentimes, what we found out is people don’t want to kill themselves; they just want the pain to go away,” he said. “By reaching out, they’re showing they want to get better by asking for help.”

How’s that for a positive spin on a suicide hotline?

“When I end that phone call, instead of thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I don’t know what they’re going to do,’ what I think is how we’ve accomplished something,” said crisis worker Joan VanReece. “We were both there, we talked, and hopefully they move on.”

VanReese takes calls to a 24-7 call center for Nashville’s Crisis Line, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the United Way 211 Helpline for 57 counties in Tennessee.

“Most people have a survival instinct,” VanReece said. “They just need to be reminded of it.”

Besides, the old notion of someone calling with a gun to the head is “rare,” said Mike Gaunt in Houghton, Michigan.

A more common scenario? An overwhelmed college student struggling with finals after breaking up with her boyfriend; a long-time job seeker starting to lose hope.

When they keep calling back, “that’s called progress,” Houghton said.

6. Find what you love in your job

Those who stick with crisis work really enjoy it, and they get something out of it.

VanReece, a retired elementary school teacher, knows that might sound strange to some, but it’s true.

“I go to bed every night feeling like I’m doing best I can, and just because I’m helping others doesn’t mean they’re not helping me.”

Lehto says her job helps her appreciate the capacity we all have to get through tough times.

“What makes me most happy,” she said, “is when I see people on a daily basis in their darkest times, in the worst moments of their lives and see the resiliency we all have.”