Donovan, an SOS volunteer in his mid-60s. The following interview was conducted by The New Paper.
TNP: How many years experience do you have? Give an estimate of how many suicidal calls you have taken over the years too.
Donovan: I joined the organisation in 1975 which makes this my 40th year. I really can't recall nor able to give an estimate as I don't keep count.
SOS: Our hotline volunteers answer an average of 100-120 calls every day. About 20% are calls with suicide risk; 40% other crisis calls; 40% regular calls.
TNP: What is your day job? Why and how did you choose to be a helpline volunteer? Do you have to go to a call centre every day?
Donovan: I used to work in HR in a local MNC but am now semi-retired. I was experiencing a personal crisis at that time and having managed, I thought I could be of some help to some people. I volunteer about 3 to 4 hours of my time weekly at SOS.
TNP: Describe in detail the type of calls you receive, from the ridiculous to the shocking. How did you react to them?
Donovan: I would not describe calls in those terms. As a suicide prevention and crisis hotline, we receive calls from people who are in intense distress and thinking of suicide. We also receive calls from people who are feeling lonely and need people to talk to. The training I received prepared me to handle the different types of calls. Besides the lecture style training, we have role plays where we are exposed to different scenarios. Sometimes we get other types of calls, some of which can be 'amusing'. Many years ago, and this was before the advent of taxi apps, a gentleman called to ask if I could help with getting him a taxi. He was in town and had been trying to hail a taxi for more than half an hour. It's the evening peak and it was very frustrating to him. He asked, rather sheepishly I may add, if we are that kind of crisis line. How is one to react to such call? With a gentle touch of humour.
TNP: What was the most memorable incident that you had?
Donovan: The most memorable for me was a lady caller some years ago who was facing a personal crisis of faith relating to an unplanned pregnancy outside of marriage. She was agonizing over whether to abort or not. 2 weeks later, she called again intending to convey her thanks to SOS to whoever she happened to speak to on the line. In one of those very rare coincidences, I happened to be on the line. She said our conversation was helpful to her as she was able to sort out her thoughts and feeling and was able to make a decision that was comforting to her and in line with her personal values. Such feedback, rare as it may be, is very validating of the value of the kind of work we do.
TNP: It's a well known fact that people who deal with depression and suicides often become influenced negatively too. Was there a time when you personally reached a breaking point, and how did you deal with it? Any particular traumatic episodes you had?
Donovan: I don't know where that well known fact came from as that has not been my experience. There was a subsequent personal crisis which fortunately did not reach breaking point. If anything, that event made me even more aware of the pervasiveness of negative and depressing thoughts and feeling when one is in the midst of a crisis and the value of talking to someone about it.
TNP: Tell me the process from the point when you get a call from a suicidal person. How much work needs to be done to save a life?
Donovan: We get a variety of calls and are very alert to those who are experiencing personal crisis of sorts. In talking to such caller, one makes assessment of the suicide risk. This is part of the training that all volunteers go through. It is not as frightening as it seems as that a volunteer, before he or she goes solo on the phone, would have had months of training. And while managing a crisis call, he or she would have the support of his fellow volunteers and professional supervisors in the background. In short, while the call is taken by me or any other volunteer, he or she is not alone as there is team work involved in handling a crisis
SOS: When volunteers answer high suicide risk calls, they can consult with the staff and ask them for support. In some cases, the caller might need to see a counsellor and we arrange for them to come to SOS to see the staff.
TNP: What was the nastiest thing someone said to you over the phone? Do you feel appreciated?
Donovan: The ''nastiest'' thing that someone said to me is: ''After all the talk, you are not helpful to me. I am wasting my time". I guess some callers have certain expectations that are not met, such as, material or financial help which we do not provide. Some are disappointed as they did not get definitive advice they sought on what to do in their situation. As hotline volunteers, we provide a listening ear and emotional support; we do not give advice. It helps to be aware of the scope of our work and their limitations; this is so that we don't feel unappreciated when one is the receiving end of such calls.
TNP: What is the greatest challenge to being a helpline volunteer? Why do you think few are willing to help out at SOS?
Donovan: I think it's that scarce commodity called time. There is the usual work life balance issue. There are other activities out there that compete for attention and which may be less involving. This kind of work requires some firm commitment not just for regular phone duty but also training
TNP: What are three "secrets of the trade" to becoming a successful SOS helpline volunteer? Any handy tips to share?
Donovan: These helped me to sustain my involvement:
1. A sense of compassion for human suffering and pain (for both self and others)
2. A belief that is akin to a faith that the SOS type of volunteer work , done so anonymously, can and do touch people's life; and
3. Self-care including having a sense of humour to add a touch of lightness to one's being
TNP: Each time the phone rings, what is one thing you always tell yourself?
Donovan: It seems to me to be more stressful to be operating in that mode. I find it more productive to bring a certain state mind when I go on duty, i.e., to be mentally prepared and mentally alert to calls that could be a crisis. When it is, it may surprise you that it is possible to marshal more than a 100% of one's mental energy to attend to it. This way one does not have to be on edge when the phone rings. While there is, understandably, some level of anxiety in managing the first crisis call when one is starting out, but with the long period of training, and the organisational support available, it is and will be manageable for any volunteer. It is, in short, possible for us all to cultivate a sense of equanimity.
TNP: What do you say to the caller to reassure them that the call is kept private?
Donovan: Most callers aren't overly concerned on the issue of privacy. However, some are and to way to assure them is explain that the privacy is kept within the organisation of which I am a part. I believe to the organisation this tenet is fundamental and that people call us because they believe that we will keep faith to this principle and that we will ask their consent if we need to.
TNP: When you receive a high suicide risk caller, how do you convince them to seek SOS' counselling services?
Donovan: It is hard to go in details about how such calls are handled. Generally, we provide emotional support to the callers and depending on the situation, we may work toward persuading such caller to stay safe and call us back at any time when the thoughts and feeling are very intense and overwhelming; or we may seek their permission to call them at another time to check in on the caller, or arrange for a counselling session with one of the professional staff. There are also times when we will persuade the caller to go to the A&E department of any hospital for help when time is of the essence.