Suicidal Callers

Alex Graber

Alex Graber

Best Practices

Alex Graber

Location, phone number, call comments, caller information … next call. It is the process that we know all too well: moving onto the next call and disregarding the thoughts, emotions, and curiosities from the last incident you handled. We are told not to get attached to the situation. Other lines are ringing, and more calls are pending for dispatch. It is our norm. Have you learned this approach is one that prohibits building rapport with callers, learning more about their challenges, providing alternative resources, and closing a conversation with care?

Wanting to do more, learn more, and impact more is what started my volunteer work with The Trevor Project, which is “the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer & questioning youth.”1

The first-party suicidal caller

Most of us have experienced the uncomfortable and prolonged first-party suicidal person 911 call. The person is upset, crying, and emotionally erratic. We run out of things to say and questions to ask. They may be hesitant to disclose their location, if they have a weapon, or if there are any injuries. They plead with you to help them, swear at you, and feel exhausted. The cellphone ping may be spot on or nonexistent. At the end of the call, you find yourself relieved it is over and begin thinking about this person’s life. Maybe you were the first person to care about them in a long time. Perhaps you said something that made them choose life instead of the weapon next to them. Sometimes the way the call ends is not the desired outcome, and we accept that reality.

Nonetheless, these are challenging calls because an hour-long conversation with someone in crisis is not our normal. As a volunteer LGBTQ Youth Digital Counselor, I challenged myself to embrace these tough calls. It slowly became my “normal.”

Putting aside habits

The Trevor’s Project support model is multifaceted: establishing rapport, assessing suicide risk, gathering information, exploring alternatives, reassessing suicide risk, and creating closure.2 It took a long time for me to get creative in my communications. There were many times I wished that ProQA® would pop up on my laptop screen to prompt me as I got deeper into these intense conversations! Direct scripted questioning and providing life safety instructions to achieve a safe response for responders was no longer part of my workflow. I had to realign my thought process to take the youth’s side, provide a wealth of empathy, and work with them to identify resources of interest. While many of these conversations center around someone having a bad day, wanting advice on “coming out,” or venting about challenges in school, there are still plenty of situations that we strangely know as our norm in the dispatch world such as overdoses, cutting of wrists, and abuse.

The Trevor Project’s 2019 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health disturbingly revealed that 39% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past 12 months.3 Connecting my knowledge of imminent suicide risk incidents and active interventions with Trevor’s support model has resulted in a satisfying mold of counseling and 911 dispatch. As I became accustomed to talking with youth in crisis, I discovered a few go-to questions and successful phrases that apply to the majority of crises regardless if one works in dispatch or an online chat environment.

  1. “What is your name?” Build personal rapport right off the bat, not to mention, obtain critical information for first responders. Use their name throughout the conversation to personalize it!
  2. “I understand … [repeat what they said].” “Thank you for sharing … ” “It takes a lot of bravery to reach out. I am really glad you are talking with me.” Let them know you heard them correctly and acknowledge their statements. Encourage openness by saying thank you. Validate they did the right thing by reaching out for help.
  3. “That makes sense and is a valid concern.” “I can see why [situation] would make you feel [emotion].” Validate their situation and how it has affected them.
  4. Don’t say, “I’m sorry ... ” Do not pity them. Replace this with, “That sounds like a really challenging situation,” or “That must have been very difficult to go through.”
  5. “You deserve to feel [supported, safe, respected, healthy, etc.].” Everyone is worthy of basic human rights and needs.

The need for more

We have seen emergency dispatchers leave the console for a police squad or say goodbye to the erratic schedule with a plethora of overtime for a 9-to-5 corporate environment. Think about what you get out of putting on your headset every day. Are you satisfied with what you do, or do you need something more? For me, it was the need to impact more. I wanted to go beyond “location, phone number, call comments, caller information … next call.” The Trevor Project has afforded me opportunities to further engage with LGBTQ youth in crisis by learning about their support systems (or lack thereof), home and school lives, friendships, mental health struggles, and emotional coming out stories. As a 911 dispatcher, all I want to do is help. I get to do this with youth by exploring safety activities such as running, listening to music, art, meeting with a local therapist, or reallocating a potential weapon. Learning your impact during the risk reassessment or through a simple, “How are you feeling now?” message at the end of the conversation is ever so heartwarming and rewarding.

A study conducted by The Scottish Volunteering Forum revealed that “94% of volunteers noted an improvement to their mental health since volunteering, and 76% said they felt physically healthier.”4 Whether you find yourself wanting to take your career further to achieve a deeper sense of impact or scale back to take your mind elsewhere such as a community garden, church, or soup kitchen, we all can take our gifts of making a difference to transform our world for the better.

To learn more about The Trevor Project, donate, or find out how to become a digital crisis counselor, visit thetrevorproject.org.


  1. “About The Trevor Project.” The Trevor Project. https://www.thetrevorproject.org/about/ (accessed Feb. 3, 2020).
  2. Trevor Digital. “The Trevor Project Digital Counselor Handbook.” https://www.thetrevorproject.org/resources/ (accessed Feb. 3, 2020).
  3. The Trevor Project. “National Survey on LGBTQ Mental Health.” The Trevor Project. 2019. https://www.thetrevorproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/The-Trevor-Project-National-Survey-Results-2019.pdf (accessed Feb. 3, 2020).
  4. Cardwell P. “Volunteering is too old fashioned says charities.” Third News Force. 2015; Oct. 13. https://thirdforcenews.org.uk/tfn-news/volunteering-is-stuck-in-the-past (accessed Feb. 3, 2020).

Alex is a telecommunicator for Waukesa County (Wisconsin, USA). He is a certified EMD, ENP, and Communications Training Officer.