Helena Reid had worked at a suicide hotline based in Tallahassee, Florida, for only a few months when she answered a call that challenged her skills and quickened her pulse. The woman described how she had put a gun on layaway at a local store. Her plan was to make payments over the next few months and, eventually, take the gun home and use it to end her life.

When a caller mentions a gun, Reid knows that situation is particularly fraught. “There’s just so much less forethought to pulling a trigger,” she says. “Any other method is so much more deliberate.”

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But this woman was operating on an unusual timeline. Reid thought back to the training she’d done to prepare her for this job. In two-and-a-half-hour sessions spread over 10 weeks, she had learned to listen to people’s stories without judgment. Her goal now was simply to be there for the woman. She didn’t try to persuade her that she should live, or press her to take any specific action. She sat and listened, bearing witness as the pain washed over her.

Slowly, Reid heard the woman’s voice relax. Toward the end of the call, the woman told Reid that she would not make a payment on the gun that month. “It felt like a gift that she had given me,” she said.

Suicide rates have been rising steadily in America over the last two decades, and are now at a record high. Just over half of all completed suicides are by gun. That’s partly because guns are so lethal: Only about 6 percent of suicide attempts involve a firearm, a 2012 study showed.

Hotline workers are often paid to do this work, but — like Reid — they usually have a deeper commitment to it. In a situation with tremendous stakes, they must be calm and patient, and listen carefully. If the caller seems open to it, they may ask them to commit to a specific plan that will keep them safe for the next few hours. Often that commitment is as simple as going to bed, or vacuuming the living room rug.

In most cases, the hotline worker never finds out what happened to the person they shared those intense, intimate moments with. But Reid says she can live with the uncertainty. She knows she was there to catch the person when they most needed a net, and that her compassion made it more likely they’ll call the next time they need to.

“If you can keep them safe for the next 30 seconds, that could lead to the next 30 years,” she said.

Reid, who is 26, decided to train to be a crisis hotline worker about two years ago, partly to figure out if she wanted to go back to school to become a therapist. After just a few sessions, she knew she had found her calling. Calls to the center where she works, which is called 2-1-1 Big Bend, come both from people who hope to be connected to social services, such as food pantries and utilities, and from people who call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline which connects callers to a counselor in their area.

Reid trained with about 20 other people, but they spent most of their time in small groups doing role play and interactive exercises to help put themselves in the mindset of someone experiencing suicidal thoughts. “It felt to me like Learn-How-To-Be-a-Good-Person training,” Reid said. “Practice empathy, be nonjudgmental, learn good listening skills. Now I practice the same tenets all the time with my friends, because it’s just so effective.” 

Another central principle of suicide hotline work, Reid said, is to ask a distressed person directly whether they are thinking of killing themselves. That’s a strategy that should be used by anyone who knows someone they fear may be suicidal, Reid said. Experts agree that the question won’t spark an idea in a person’s head if it wasn’t there already, and it’s often a tremendous relief to be invited to talk about something that can be incredibly hard to broach. If the person answers “yes,” Reid’s next questions are “Have you attempted suicide before?” and “Do you have a plan?”

If a person has a gun in the house, never mind in their hand, Reid will ask the caller to get a little distance from it — say, ask them to put it down and move to a different room. Reid might also ask the person to consider taking out the ammunition. If the person is feeling suicidal and has a gun in a safe or stored somewhere in the house, Reid might see if they’d consider giving it to a friend or family member to hold it until it feels safe to take it back.

Reid said one call in particular taught her not to make assumptions about what anyone is going through. She was new and nervous, and she reached for a way to convince the woman to live. “How about your husband?” Reid asked, after the woman mentioned her spouse. “Don’t you want to live for him?” The woman replied flatly that her husband was abusive, and he was one of the reasons why she wanted to die. “I should have been holding her hand through telling that story instead of pulling her where I wanted her to go,” Reid said.

After working at the hotline full-time for about a year, Reid recently cut back to 25 hours a week so she could go back to school for her master’s degree in social work. She hasn’t decided yet what kind of counseling she’ll do when she graduates, but she likes the intensity and impact of working with people in crisis. “You become part of the caller’s permanent safety plan. You know that they will call the hotline back because they know they’ll get someone who cares.”