Working the Crisis Hotline

This guest blog post is written in recognition of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, sponsored by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. #SAAM

By Ken Kolb, author of Moral Wages: The Emotional Dilemmas of Victim Advocacy and Counseling

I remember my first overnight shift. They gave me a cell phone. When I got home, I put it on the kitchen counter. When I went upstairs  to fold some laundry, I panicked and rushed downstairs to retrieve it: I was terrified I might miss a call.

One rite of passage every victim advocate remembers is their first night shift on the crisis hotline. Nearly every agency in the country that assists victims of sexual assault hosts some type of hotline. (To find one near you, go to the National Sexual Assault Hotline.) Unlike what we see in the movies, the hotline isn’t answered in some high-tech command center. Sexual assault agencies can’t afford anything like that. Instead, staff and volunteers agree to take turns on different nights of the week.

When it was my turn, and it finally rang, I thought I was ready. I had my binder. I had my training. I took a deep breath.

My first call involved more listening than talking. Victims have had a good deal of the power and control over their lives taken away from them. To help them is to restore that power. And that means letting them lead the conversation.

When it was over, it took a while for my heart rate to slow back down. I was filled with doubt. Did I give the right information? I double checked the binder. Did I say the right thing? I went over my notes.

I never met the woman I talked to. She was exhausted and confused. She had been dealing with this for weeks. She couldn’t sleep. She needed to talk.

I did my best. I still tell myself that. I still think about it.

What other jobs require their workers to pay this type of emotional price? On the hotline, the roller coaster of stress, elation, anxiety, and satisfaction does not end at 5pm or on holidays. The hotline never stops ringing.

Victim advocates earn little in the way of pay or prestige, and yet we rely on them day and night to fight on the front lines against sexual assault. During Sexual Assault Awareness Month, let’s think about ways we can help the helpers. After all, if we want to develop better victim services, we should probably know a little bit more about those who will deliver them.

If you know of anyone who works with victims, here are some ways to help them manage their emotional burden.

Ways to Help:

  • Ask them about their work. Not many people do. The topic of sexual assault can make people uncomfortable, causing victim advocates to have few outlets to share their feelings.
  • Don’t press them for details. Victim advocates want to talk about their job, but confidentiality requirements limit the amount of information they can divulge. Their secrets keep others safe.
  • Inquire about positive cases. Victim advocacy can be a troubling and disheartening job, but it can also be rewarding. Even little “wins” at work can mean a lot. Talking about them lets the helpers remember why they make the sacrifices they do.

Kenneth H. Kolb is Associate Professor of Sociology at Furman University. His book, Moral Wages: The Emotional Dilemmas of Victim Advocacy and Counselingis based on over a year of fieldwork by a man in a setting many presume to be hostile to men. It offers the reader a vivid depiction of what it is like to work inside an agency that assists victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.