“I wasn’t sure what to do. It was a very troubling time for me,” said Arthur Thompson Jr., a recent caller to SLO Hotline. “My roommate decided to discontinue his medication. His conversations turned very delusional.” Over the six months that followed, Thompson watched this person – someone he’d known well and liked – develop increasingly worrying symptoms. Thompson had experienced something similar as a teen. He knew the signs.
SLO Hotline has been taking calls like this, every day, around the clock, since 1970. That’s over two generations of SLO and Northern Santa Barbara County callers, all of them in need of a listening ear, a guide, a human voice that cares what happens next. Last year, people in crisis or in need of support made nearly 8,000 calls to SLO Hotline.
In all this time, the SLO Hotline has prioritized each caller. Every volunteer receives hours of training to ensure that the person who answers is well equipped. Calls aren’t for the faint of heart or for those lacking empathy. When someone dials 800- or 805-783-0607, she expects that the person on the other end of the line will have a listening ear and a lifeline to hope.
“Sometimes people have had a past episode of depression and they want to know how to be ready for another episode, or they call to get prepared to visit a relative with mental illness. They’re looking for guidance on how to talk to that person,” explained Mike Bossenberry, SLO Hotline Program Coordinator. He and Victoria Mulhall, Assistant Program Coordinator, are the program’s only full-time employees. SLO Hotline is part of non-profit Transitions-Mental Health Association.
“My girlfriend brought to my attention that I should call the SLO Hotline number and connected me with Mike [Bossenberry],” Thompson recalled. “What Mike did for me was help me know it was OK to talk to someone about my roommate.”
“Because of my experiences, I have a strong bond with Transitions and the people there.
Transitions is basically my world,” reflected Thompson. “I have stayed in contact with Mike. We established a good relationship over the time my roommate began having delusional behavior.”
Thompson is now volunteering to help train SLO Hotline volunteers. “I understand the integrity, the seriousness and how valuable Hotline volunteers can be. This organization will talk anytime. If you want to just unload, you can. They’ll listen.”
“You know, if there’s immediate danger, there’s a 24-hour crisis service available. Crisis workers can go out to the home or school, for instance,” said Bossenberry. Confidential telephone services are always available for anyone in emotional distress or suicidal crisis. “Callers may remain anonymous. Or they can give their names for follow-ups or additional care.”
But, sometimes the need is different and callers are hesitant. “Sometimes people will say, ‘I’m not in crisis, I’m sorry to bother you.’ You don’t have to be in a crisis to call. We’re here for that… information and resources, groups, support,” said Bossenberry. SLO Hotline is available to answer calls from anyone in need of emotional support or mental health information or referrals.
Lately, in California, the caller profile has changed, but the necessity of the service hasn’t decreased. Already in 2008, 18.8 percent of the area’s population was Hispanic, and the population has continued to grow more diverse. Some don’t speak English. Others speak languages unfamiliar to most area residents.
Thanks to Proposition 63 and a California Mental Health Authority (CalMHSA) grant for Spanish Bilingual Outreach and Recruitment, “Hotline was able to hire a part-time, bilingual recruitment and outreach specialist to bring in bilingual volunteers and do outreach about the program. It ended June 30, 2015,” said Bossenberry. “We’re trying to add more bilingual resources and staff. We’ve subscribed to the Language Line [a translation service], so an interpreter is available…not just for Spanish.”
More funding arrived through the CalMHSA Suicide Prevention Initiative, which started in July 1, 2012 and ended in June 2015. “As part of that initiative, it allowed us to apply for and receive our accreditation from the American Association of Suicidology,” said Bossenberry. “Another part of what the funding has enabled us to do is that I have become a certified ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills) trainer, and also a certified QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer), along with other TMHA staff, enabling us to teach those serving at-risk populations: youth, seniors, those with mental health or substance abuse issues.”
SLO Hotline volunteers are in high demand. The work is challenging, rewarding and worthy of the time it takes to become a volunteer. Each call is a person-to-person exchange that can have an enormous impact on both lives. There are times when a caller is seeking resources for a unique problem. Other calls are literally life and death: the person who has dialed SLO Hotline is ready to commit suicide and desperately needs someone to intervene.
“The model for SLO Hotline is based in counseling skills: Active Listening and asking good questions. It was developed in the 1950s in Los Angeles and Britain. LA had one of the very first crisis lines based on the same model,” said Bossenberry. “Hotline started on April 1, 1970. This year, the program is 45.”
The program began as a local crisis support and resources referral hotline. It was grassroots and local church groups were involved. Over the years, SLO Hotline evolved as an independent nonprofit crisis line and mental health information and referral source. The funding was unsustainable, however, and the program almost closed in December 2009. TMHA adopted SLO Hotline in January 2010 as part of its network of mental health support.
It continues its service to the community, now with a stigma-elimination, mental health recovery, and suicide prevention mission. “In 2010, there were about 100 calls per month. Now, we get 900 calls per month,” said Bossenberry.
During the Summer 2013, SLO Hotline got a new phone number. Bossenberry explained: “We have been trying to get an 805 number to match the 800 number. When people dialed the number without the ‘800’ area code, they got nowhere. The old number still works, but the new numbers work better.”
In addition to its regular volume of calls, SLO Hotline is also now taking after-hours calls for SLO County Mental Health Services. That means volunteers are available to answer calls from County clients overnight, on weekends and holidays, acting as the first line of response. SLO Hotline also refers callers to 211, a program of United Way, which has resources for all other community information and referral needs.
So, what motivates SLO Hotline staff and volunteers?
“I went through some experiences when I was young – dealing with depression and thoughts of suicide, never acting on those thoughts, but made a vow that if I got through all this, I’d find a way to help other people,” said Bossenberry. “Now, it’s rewarding to work with volunteers and staff – to train them how to help. It feels good. I’m making a contribution and it’s what keeps me going.”
SLO Hotline volunteers learn the skills required to aid in suicide prevention, defuse crisis situations and provide emotional and mental health support. They also connect callers to mental health and other resources in the community.
“It’s been very beneficial for me. I’m constantly promoting it,” said Thompson. “It’s a good thing. It works.”
Interested in Volunteering?
There are plenty of reasons to get involved, and Bossenberry will tick them off for you, “It’s the satisfaction and accomplishment you might feel from helping another person. You are part of an organization doing good and effective work in the community. If you are a student or someone looking to make a career change, it’s good and practical experience working with people who have mental health issues or their family members asking for help.”
SLO Hotline provides extensive training. Before volunteers take calls, Hotline trainers make sure they are well trained and ready. “I’ve seen people really blossom,” says Bossenberry with a smile. “Part of it is being aware of how your voice, and the caller’s, communicate on the phone. We do a lot of role playing of simulated calls. Later, new volunteers work with an experienced person who mentors and assists them as they start taking calls. Volunteers hone their skills: refining their abilities to communicate empathy, assess needs, assist those in crisis, arrange interventions when needed for suicidal crises, and expand their knowledge of resources available in the community.”
The basic volunteer commitment is one year and requires at least 16 hours per month of time. Because the need is so great, SLO Hotline is constantly recruiting. “It’s a great way to increase your skills and knowledge of services and support in the community,” said Bossenberry. “Callers are very grateful, too.”
If you are interested in volunteering to be a part of the mental wellness of our community, please contact Transitions-Mental Health Association at 805-540-6500.