A chance encounter with Ginny Shepherd sparked hope in me. This petite dynamic woman has been a part of the fight against despair for a long time and I was delighted to get the opportunity to interview her as we conversed at a local coffee shop. May she
“Good-Bye” was an opportunity to offer hope, for Ginny Shepherd, a five-year veteran of the crisis hotline in her region. She has a long history of standing in the gap for those in crisis, both her own family and anyone who crosses her path. Becoming a volunteer for a crisis-hotline and later a director of training, was a natural progression in her pattern of helping others.
Ginny and her siblings wrestled with many physical and emotional challenges after losing their father at an early age. This experience and its aftermath introduced her to both good and bad ways of handling trauma and depression. She was acutely aware of what worked in mental health care and what was utterly useless in helping those on the edge of suicide.
As an adult, working for many years in the education world, Ginny observed young men and women with various levels of complicated problems. She took the opportunity to listen, encourage, and find great resources of hope for her students. She often referred students to counseling, and or campus chaplains. A friendship developed with the on-campus chaplains and his wife, who were involved with the local crisis hotline.
When thinking about becoming a crisis hotline volunteer, Ginny says, “I resisted at first because I didn’t see that I had any kind of qualifications.” But drawing on her own experience with tragedy, and help she often administered to students, she thought the crisis training was at least worth exploring. “Serving as a crisis intervention worker is a great opportunity to learn about one’s ego and to become more aware of the voices that we inherited from our parents, family, ministers, and teachers that may not be the voices that are the most helpful in being a pathway for a person in crisis to walk on. You want to serve as a bridge; you want to serve as a conduit. You need to help the caller in crisis hear what they are saying and know that they are being listened to that they are seen as a valuable person.”
Working a crisis hotline is not for everyone and being aware of strengths and weaknesses is essential. “We learned the difference between empathy—what we strive to practice—and sympathy, defined as a negative emotion for a crisis worker. With empathy, one is, shoulder to shoulder with the caller, sort of at their side. With sympathy the tendency is sort of looking down on the caller.” Training gave volunteers the opportunity to work out the bugs in their vocabulary. “We were supposed to use the pronoun ‘you’, but it was easy to slip into giving the caller a to-do list.”
For the fixer, it takes reprogramming responses to someone in crisis. “Boy, we had excellent training.” Ginny declares, explaining that professional psychologist, hospital workers, police and men, and women working the crisis phones for many years, equipped the trainees with confidence to stand in the gap for those in crisis. Much of the training involved role-playing. The trainer would take on the role of a caller, and the volunteer would respond. Ginny reflects, “We were taught to respect the place the caller is in. And for heaven’s sakes, no judgments, and no guilt, no coercive language, no manipulation language, just trying to help the caller clarify in his or her mind what was going on. Clear away the static. When you are in a crisis, your blood pressure goes up, and your head feels like it’s pounding. It’s hard to think. So much of the beginning of a crisis call is calming a person down by reassuring and listening. I found anyone in crisis, particularly the young, have so many thoughts and feelings jumbling around in their mind and they are not used to someone listening to them.” And once she began answering the crisis lines, regular in-service training kept her understanding fresh and flexible to the everchanging nature of the calls received.
Callers were not always someone you would sit across from and enjoy a coffee chat, Ginny explained. Learning to treat all callers as valuable took a lot of training. The crisis organization brought in a local director of a battered women’s shelter to help the volunteers understand and address the unique dynamics of domestic violence calls. Ginny learned that in domestic violence situations “often the batterers are in as much internal pain as they inflict on their spouse. That was a revelation to me.” She went on to say, “one of the miracles of life is that God does love all, and that capacity is very difficult to achieve.” To spark life in desperate situations takes practice, accountability, and flexibility. Ginny feels she received all of these gifts through the speakers and experts in the field.
Traumatic calls ranging from suicide threats, domestic violence to pedophiles and everything in-between are bound to take a toll on the strongest of volunteers, but Ginny credits her five-years’ service to the training received. “The initial training always emphasized, you’re not here to tell people what to do, you are not here to solve their problem, you’re here to listen and to hold up that person so he or she can believe that they have the chance to solve their problem.” Effectively, Ginny’s job was to give control over their problems, back to the caller. “We practiced active listening. Reflecting to the caller what we hear them saying.”
And if you get it wrong?
“Don’t worry they’ll tell you.”
The goal was to help the caller to experience that moment of thinking “ahh, maybe I could or maybe I can.” As she helped the caller see they could work through their trauma, she says, “and then you cautiously lead them into a referral.” Connect them with the experts, “the best possible resources.” Ginny adds, “There was always a professional on call, that if we got into a really difficult phone conversation, we could explain to the caller. I have another phone here to call someone to help me. Or, you could call someone after the phone call for help.” She found herself in such a situation after a three-hour suicide call. “A tightrope-walking situation.” She says. The call started with just wanting someone to tell good-bye to but ended with a well maybe I don’t need to say good-bye. But Ginny still felt unsure, questioning if she had done all she could. She contacted the expert on-call, and he went through the call, reflecting her responses, and reassured Ginny she had done all she could to respect and offer hope to the caller.
Her recommendations to those who want to help loved ones in crisis is: “We may fear that we don’t have the right words, but I think If we can communicate to the person in crisis, contemplating suicide, that he or she is seen. We see you, you are present in my life, and I care about your life. I think all people crave to be understood and a common cry from a person is you don’t understand me. My best estimate of what to do is to say, “Help me know you, help me to understand. That puts the power back into the hands of he or her who feels they have no power. Helps them to reach out on their behalf.” Ginny says,
They are crying out to be understood and often call in because they feel no one in their sphere of influence who could understand.” “Often you don’t know if a family member has just trodden into quicksand.” Our response should be, “Give me a chance, I’ll try.” In a call, there is always that moment where there is a “spark of insight. There’s that first glimmer from them of ‘oh maybe.’ There’s a little spark of hope, and it is a very tender and tenuous moment. You wait to hear that in their voice and then tread very lightly.” Ginny spent years listening for that spark, and you and I can hone the same skills.
Take-aways from conversing with Ginny:
- Crisis work takes training
- Use the experiences and skills you already have to help those around you
- Look for opportunities to encourage
- Don’t try to fix the person
- Seek wise counsel and support
- Try to understand the source of pain
- Be alert to the vulnerabilities of others
- Have an awareness of your own struggles
- Don’t pass judgment on others
- Look for the spark of hope