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Need to Watch Word Choice When Crisis Counseling

What kind of training is given to the average suicide hotline counselor? I'll be the first to admit, I don't know. But I am almost convinced that an important piece of training that is essential is learning to express empathy and compassion accurately. There is a second important piece, and it is almost comically obvious, is an adequate command of the dominant language.

Let's see how the presence of one word, expressed with different tone, can be the difference between life and death. The first "What's wrong?" as opposed to the second "What's wrong now?"

The power of one word, in a time of distress, can mean the world. Especially when the person hearing the extra worded phrase literally is seeking help from killing himself. This is the situation that happened to one of my patients, who thankfully did not commit suicide but did cut himself/herself for relief as a result. My patient heard the crisis counselor tell him/her this after the patient had the courage to leave an abusive relationship, as she suffered from the concurrent death of his/her father. I had many thoughts. I wondered who trained the crisis counselor. Did the counselor not know that she had to take care of herself emotionally and determine if she is able to manage the phone that night? Did the counselor not know that her tone of voice, as well as her choice of words, carries so much weight, especially in periods of crisis? Did she know and not care? I don't know, unfortunately.

Everyone blunders. Lapses in empathy happen to everyone. But, many blunders can be corrected with a bit more emotional self-awareness. It is up to the counselor to determine if he/she is capable of hearing the most intensely emotional stories from someone in need without losing control. It is up to the counselor to check him/herself out of the situation is he/she cannot, because they are the best informer of their experience.

Training is only effective if the trainee believes it is worthwhile. Training is only effective if the trainee lets go of their culture-specific beliefs and adopts the information from the training. Yet, with all the training, keep in mind to continuously exercise caution and self-awareness because it can all be derailed with only one misplaced word.

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