Funding cuts, volunteer shortages pose challenges for Mental Health America of Greenville County’s crisis services

'For Anyone, Anywhere, Anytime'

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For anyone who has ever dealt with stress, worry, depression, or anxiety, finding a person who will simply listen can be invaluable. And for the past 25 years, Mental Health America of Greenville County (MHAGC) has been offering that vital service to the community at no cost through CRISISline, a 24/7 year-round hotline operated by volunteers.

CRISISline gives callers an “opportunity to talk about how it feels to be in their shoes and how it feels to deal with what they’re dealing with,” says Kathy Eckart, director of crisis intervention services at MHAGC.

“We really market it in terms of it’s for anyone, anywhere, anytime,” says Jennifer Piver, executive director of MHAGC. “One thing we all frequently will say to people is if we asked everyone what a crisis would be, the definition would be completely different from every one of us. And we really take that perspective on the phones: that a crisis is individual.”

By providing callers with a resource to talk through their situation, the hope is that they can develop coping mechanisms or solutions on their own, and that it will also help to “minimalize the cumulative effect of stress,” Piver says.

And while the demand for MHAGC’s crisis services continues to increase, a lack of resources, compounded by funding cuts and volunteer shortages, has posed challenges for the agency.

‘THESE AREN’T ANONYMOUS PEOPLE’

Piver says MHAGC once had the capacity to answer about 15,000 CRISISline calls a year. In 2016, CRISISline answered 9,201 calls — while missing nearly 9,000.

“Right now, we don’t have a full-time volunteer coordinator,” she says. “If we were able to afford that, fewer calls would go unanswered.”

The agency doesn’t receive any county, state, or federal support, according to Piver, and is funded primarily through the United Way of Greenville County, private donations, program service fees, and grants. To protect individuals’ privacy, the identities and stories of those who are helped by MHAGC’s crisis services remain unknown to the public. That promise of confidentiality, though it is essential for maintaining the trust of callers, can be a detriment for MHAGC in their efforts to drum up community and institutional support for their mission.

“People have a hard time funding anonymous people,” Piver says, “and what we try to help people understand is that in all reality, these aren’t anonymous people.”

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 18.5 percent of adults experience mental illness each year, and 21.4 percent of youth ages 13 to 18 experience “a severe mental disorder at some point during their life.” The organization also reports “half of all chronic mental illness begins by age 14.”

“This really affects every dining room table,” Piver says. “And no one necessarily plans to have a crisis. … But we’re here, and people don’t think to support that.”

Adds Eckart, “We hear all the time what a great service it [CRISISline] is and how people give out our cards all the time. And all of that is free. And to not have that backing for it… that makes us sad, too, that we can’t be there for as many people as we’d like to be.”

The obstacles MHAGC faces aren’t only attributable to the agency’s own funding, however, as statewide cuts to mental health care have increased demand for alternate resources.

MHAGC’s Reassurance Line, a support line that places outgoing calls to individuals with chronic mental illness, has become a “stopgap” for accessing professional mental health treatment. “When it takes time to get into a psychiatrist or counselor, we’re checking in. We’re the in-between,” Piver says.

The calls serve as reminders to individuals living independently to complete what are termed activities of daily living, which include eating, showering, dressing, and taking prescribed medication. In 2016, MHAGC placed 11,436 Reassurance Line calls.

‘A SNAPSHOT OF THE SITUATION’

Whether volunteers are working on the CRISISline or the Reassurance Line, remaining objective and suspending judgment while on the phone are critical. A volunteer who is talking to a caller only knows a “snapshot of the situation,” Piver says, so attempting to either give advice or make decisions for someone is “incomplete and dangerous.”

“Oftentimes, people want us to validate a decision, but we can’t,” she says.

That remains the case even when speaking to those who express suicidal thoughts on the phone. For many, the immediate impulse would be to try to discourage a caller from acting on those thoughts, but MHAGC deliberately does not take that approach.

“To tell someone that they can’t do it is unrealistic,” Piver says. “We do everything we can to identify the feelings of how they got there and what they can control in their own life. … We acknowledge that it’s OK [to have those thoughts], but by not putting a reactionary spotlight on it, we can get to those feelings.”

Therefore, whether or not a caller is suicidal, the method for volunteers working the phones remains the same: Through active listening, they acknowledge the caller’s current situation and emotions, and then ask how they have previously used coping mechanisms to deal with past incidences of stress.

‘DESPERATE FOR VOLUNTEERS’

Currently, CRISISline has 24 volunteers. For MHAGC to be in “a really healthy position,” the agency would need close to 75 volunteers, Piver says.

The time commitment is one roadblock in volunteer recruitment. Prospective CRISISline volunteers must undergo 45 hours of classroom instruction involving education and role-playing, followed by another 20 hours of mentoring, in which volunteers first listen in on CRISISline calls and then have their calls listened to. In total, training lasts about a month.

“With a food bank or something, you can meet someone that day and have them volunteering in an hour. That is not at all how we function, which is what makes it so difficult,” Piver says.

“We’re desperate for volunteers. There’s no reason that a call should go missed,” she adds. “And the skills that people learn are lifetime skills that help in every aspect of life in terms of dealing with those you love and situations you come across.”

Erin*, 25, who began volunteering in January, says that while she believed she was a good listener prior to her training, her experience as a CRISISline volunteer has led to improved personal listening skills.

“It’s helped my relationships and friendships,” she says. “I catch myself not minimizing people’s problems. You can’t downplay what people are feeling.”

Jim*, 69, who has been volunteering on CRISISline for four years, says the overall experience has been “enlightening about what’s out in the community that you don’t see walking down the street.”

A retired professor and licensed professional counselor, Jim says that a saying he heard — “don’t retire from, but retire to” — inspired him to volunteer.

“Given the current environment and the negativity bouncing around, to come in and try to do something positive, even if it’s just a small piece… it makes a difference not just in their day but in mine, too,” he says.

“The value of listening is not recognized,” he adds. “This is the place to learn that.”

*Erin and Jim are both pseudonyms. MHAGC keeps the identities of crisis service volunteers confidential.

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