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Distress Line Volunteering

Volunteering as a Distress Line Listener can be a life-changing experience. We’ll get you started with 64 hours of comprehensive training in crisis management, suicide prevention, family violence intervention, and much more. You’ll develop communication skills that will improve how you relate to the people in your life and you’ll be a part of an amazing team of compassionate people. Completing your volunteer contract as a distress line listener is a great way to enhance your resume and earn a great reference letter. If you work, or are thinking about working, in a helping field (social work, counselling, nursing, etc.), becoming a distress line listener give you lots of experience and help to grow your skills. Become a Distress Line Volunteer Listener. Without highly-skilled, caring volunteers, the distress line would cease to exist and more than 1,500 calls for help would go unanswered each month.

For more information on volunteering with the Distress Line, please see the questions and answers below. To apply to be a Distress Line volunteer, please click here.

What is the role of volunteers on the Distress Line?

Volunteers are key people in the operation of the lines. The volunteer is the first, and often the only, contact a caller has when seeking support, information, understanding, or a listening ear. Volunteers do not judge, chat with, advise, preach to, or label callers to the lines.

Who volunteers on the Distress Line?

Anyone can make a difference. Our volunteers have diverse backgrounds and range in age from 18 to over 60. Our volunteers are students, homemakers, police officers, grandparents, comedians, teachers, nurses … the list goes on. Anyone can help … men and women who care and want to be “here to listen when life hurts”.

What qualities are needed in volunteers?

The qualities which make good telephone volunteers are maturity, warmth, stability, objectivity, caring and common sense. Volunteers must be able to empathize with people in distress in a calm and empowering manner.

You don’t need any special schooling or diplomas or degrees — we’ll train you! If you are patient, compassionate, reliable, objective, and able to listen without judgment, we can offer you an amazing experience!

Due to the stressful nature of the training and operation of lines, we may require prospective volunteers who have suffered a major life event or loss in the last 12 months to wait at least one year before beginning training.

What training do I receive?

All volunteers receive 63 hours of intensive basic training in communication skills, knowledge of community resources, suicide awareness and prevention, crisis intervention, bereavement, and special calls. Training will give you the confidence and knowledge to be able to comfortably discuss these issues.

Throughout the year there are additional opportunities to learn more through inservice lecture sessions which cover a number of relevant topics. Volunteers who have worked a minimum of three months on the Distress Line will receive an additional 4 hours of training which qualifies them to work doing Telephone Follow-up calls and Online Crisis Chat.

Is anyone ever excused from the training program because of previous experience?

No. All volunteers must take the training program regardless of previous experience. Even professionals and volunteers from other crisis centres must take the training if they wish to work on the Distress Line.

What if I can’t make all of the training dates?

Anyone unable to make all of the training dates for a specific class will be asked to wait for the next training session; there are four sessions every year (January, May, June, and September). This is necessary because of the structure of the training – each class builds on the previous one and missing something makes it impossible to catch up.

What happens after training?

Successful completion of the training is followed by an 8-week probationary period so that the volunteer and the agency can better decide if this is a good fit. Volunteers staffing the lines work one 4-hour shift or two 2-hour shifts every week (although individuals may work more frequently if they choose). Four of these hours each month must be worked during a midnight shift.

What is a midnight shift?

There is a requirement that all Distress Line Volunteers complete four midnight hours per month. Midnight shifts enable the Distress Line to offer a 24 hour service. The hours between midnight and 8:00 a.m. are midnight hours. Any hours worked during that time count toward the midnight commitment. That way either the night owl or early riser in you can be accommodated.

How are shifts scheduled?

Shifts are self-scheduled. That means you sign up for shifts when you are available. Shift scheduling is the responsibility of the volunteers, who sign up as far in advance as possible. There is flexibility; however, volunteers changing a shift are responsible for finding their own replacement.

Do volunteers work alone?

At all times, there is a staff member present on site and supervisors on call for support and guidance, 24 hours a day — only a beeper away.

What is the time commitment a volunteer should expect to offer the lines?

CMHA-ER expects a commitment of at least 200hrs in the first year.  This works out to be four hours a week, which includes one midnight shift every month.  Volunteers self-schedule for all their shifts, giving our volunteers flexibility to volunteer when they can.

Where are the lines located?

The lines are at an undisclosed location near the downtown core. The exact address is known only to volunteers and staff of CMHA-ER in order to protect the safety and anonymity of the volunteers. The building is accessible by public transportation as well as being wheelchair accessible.

What are the requirements for volunteers?

Volunteer listeners must be at least 18 years of age. Fluency in both written and spoken English is required. Volunteers must be comfortable working with computers.

What Distress Line volunteers themselves have to say…

  • “It is challenging and I love that. I feel I am making a difference in people’s lives and my own. It is the most satisfying volunteering I have done.”
  • “I’m learning something new here every day.”
  • “Working on the Distress Line is both rewarding and challenging. I can see the need for this service and am encouraged to continue after seeing the progress callers can make to help themselves in a single call. I feel like I/we are making a difference!”
  • “This was an extremely valuable experience; not just with the information I’ve gained and the opportunity I’m now faced with (to be on the lines) but also for the friendships I’ve made.”
  • “[The Training] was awesome! I feel confident to get on the phones, and I am capable of helping someone in crisis. I think it will help me get into medicine!”
  • “I was really impressed with the training. I was amazed at how you took such heavy topics and managed to not minimize them or make them scary, but introduce it to us in a controlled and positive way.”

What callers have to say…

  • “My sister is okay, she’s still alive. Thanks for the help.”
  • “I called last night about my violent boyfriend. I have my safe pack ready and am leaving the house tonight. I feel confident and will certainly call back if I need to talk again, just wanted to say thank you for the support and the help last night.”
  • “Would like to thank you people at the Distress Line. I called last week and was in the depths of despair. Someone really helped pull me out of my rut so thanks for the help.”
  • “I called last weekend. I have been feeling better about myself since I phoned. You really made me think about my life and I’m ready to make progress. Thank-you for being there for me when I really needed it!”
  • “I just called to say I’m doing good now … I wanna live my life. Things used to be really bad, but I’m good now. I might not need to call you guys no more.”
  • “I just wanted to thank you for saving my life.”

What’s in it for me again?

A very reasonable question. Our volunteers experience the rewards of knowing they make a real difference to the people who call. On top of that, you’ll learn skills that can improve your personal and professional life and that will last long past any time you spend with us. This volunteer experience is highly-respected and an asset on any resume.

As a Distress Line volunteer you will work with a diverse range of clients and situations. You’ll make connections, receive supportive feedback, work as a member of a dedicated team, and increase your knowledge of community resource. Volunteer recognition is both formal and informal, and volunteers are invited to attend an annual event in their honour.

The challenge we provide also keeps our volunteers coming back for more. There is much opportunity for personal growth. In terms of practical, career-related experience for those pursuing the helping professions, this volunteer opportunity can’t be beat.