What are warm lines? All warm lines are phone lines that can be called by anyone at any time who wants to talk about what is going on for them. Most warm lines are “peer run,” meaning the phones are answered and managed by people who have been through difficult times themselves and may still be experiencing challenging emotions and other types of suffering. Warm line operators, unlike therapists or some other hotline counselors, often share their own experiences to relate with, connect and comfort callers.
Why call a warm line? It’s a chance to be heard, be anonymous, get things off your chest, and possibly get encouragement, support, ideas and solidarity. I’ve called warm lines myself, and while every call is different, they have all left me feeling lighter, relieved and glad I’d called. As a person who identifies as a psychiatric survivor and was severely hurt by being labeled and nearly killed by psychiatric drugs, I haven’t gone to a therapist in 10 years. I have had mixed feelings about trying therapy after my early experiences, even though they weren’t all bad. I sometimes have missed the feeling of catharsis of being listened to in such a focused way and being able to release emotion with “therapeutic” support, which has at times felt therapeutic to me. Yet, every time I have tried to find a therapist, something has interfered, be it finances, lack of good options, not having the time or energy to look for the right person, not having insurance, not wanting to be labeled, consistently moving and traveling and a host of other things.
Warm lines gave me an opportunity to get some of that focused attention and listening spontaneously, for free, and without a lot of the initial barriers such as diagnosis, paperwork and appointment setting. They aren’t intended as a substitute for therapy or friends or anything else, rather as another option for support, respecting the diversity of how different people feel supported.
The Mental Health Association of San Francisco launched its first peer run warm line this month. Currently the warm line is staffed by 3 warm line specialists and one supervisor, Melodee Jarvis, who is a suicide attempt survivor and has a background in suicide hotline management. The warm line specialists have trained in WRAP and eCPR and have had their own trauma, hardship and experiences in the mental health system and in hospitals.
Please spread the word, especially to San Francisco folks: 855-845-7415
Each warm line has slightly different policies and a different flavor, as does every warm line operator, so there can often be a sense of risk in picking up the phone to call an anonymous person. Luckily, it is a phone call so you aren’t tied into anything. You don’t have to give your real name, and at any point you can end the call if it isn’t working for you. To be honest, I have even called and hung up immediately if I didn’t like the sound of the operator’s voice and I have never used “Chaya” when asked my name.
There are a few things that make the San Francisco Peer Run Warm Line unique. One is that while anyone is welcome to call and talk, the resources are San Francisco based (though they will be expanded over time). Besides a listening ear from someone who is likely to be able to relate, the SF Warm Line provides referrals to other resources in the city including free meals, advocacy, housing help, peer support groups, and counseling services (if you have less known resources in San Francisco, please let me know).
Warm line counselors never diagnose, label or pathologize any caller nor do they tell anyone what to do. They may offer suggestions or ideas based on what has helped them, but they never tell anyone they should take them.
The SF Peer Run Warm Line currently operates 12-8pm Monday through Friday and will eventually run 24/7 with 36 warm line counselors and staff. Currently there are only 4 on staff and there is an opening for one more full time specialist who is fluent in Spanish or Cantonese.
Calling a Warm Line:
- Go to warmline.org and choose one that is either in your area or open to callers from all areas. The SF warm line is not yet listed, but does accept all callers, with an emphasis on San Francisco based resources.
- Call as many warm lines as you need to until you get through as sometimes they can be hard to reach. Some lines will allow you to leave a message and will call you back. The SF warm line returns all calls and does follow up after each call, checking in with you the next day or later that week if you agree to it.
- Share your name or pseudonym and tell the warm line operator what is going on. Let them know whether you are looking for someone to listen and relate, or if you are looking for other resources in your area (or online), or both.
- Most warm line calls are about 20 minutes. The SF Peer Run Warm Line doesn’t have a time limit yet, but may need one once we have more calls. Please spread the word about the new line!
- Most warm lines will invite you to call back anytime, after your initial call. Take them up on it and call back the next time you need to share and can’t find a friend or would rather talk to someone anonymous.
- Most warm line operators will not give out personal information that would identify themselves and aren’t allowed to meet you in person or connect by email or social media (though there is at least one that uses social media, called “Warm Line” on Facebook). This is to protect both parties and keep the “container.” Your information will be confidential as well.
- The SF Warm Line can help you write a WRAP plan. Get creative and ask your warm line counselor for the type of support you need. Many times they will be happy for the direction as it can be harder to intuit or sense what someone needs on the phone without being told directly. Remember, warm line operators are ordinary people, like you, who have trained in peer counseling, and also have their own struggles.
Warm lines are one of those hidden resources that many people don’t know about yet, but with a large and well established organization like the Mental Health Association of San Francisco starting one, it looks like they are going to be highlighted more and hopefully many more will be funded around the world so that no one is ever lacking a listening ear from a safe “peer.” (Cheesy rhyme intended).
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.