A Portland-based crisis counseling and referral line is recruiting Central Oregon teens to provide peer-to-peer outreach and support for students struggling with suicidal thoughts, bullying and other mental health issues.

To date, YouthLine, a service provided by the nonprofit Lines for Life, has operated solely out of its Portland headquarters, but fielded calls from across Oregon and from outside the state. Once the satellite office opens in Central Oregon, calls will be routed to both sites.

“It will be two teams doing the same work with supervisors, just in two different locations,” said Emily Moser, Lines for Life’s YouthLine program director.

YouthLine currently fields about 10,000 calls a year. It averages 23 contacts per day in the 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. shifts staffed by teens and another seven to nine contacts through the rest of the day. Kids who need help can contact the line by phone, text, email or chat and are not required to provide any identifying information.

“Picking up a phone and calling a 1-800 number doesn’t necessarily resonate with kids these days,” said Sean Reinhart, executive director of special programs for Bend-LaPine schools. “But also when kids call — and they can call for any reason — there’s another youth on the end of the phone. They can talk to a peer.”

The volunteers receive more than 50 hours of training and are supervised by mental health counselors. If calls become more than they can handle, they can turn those callers over to trained professionals.

“It makes it a little bit more of an available and welcoming step for someone to call and ask for help,” Reinhart said.

The Bend-LaPine School District has seen aa greater need for mental health services over the past five years, he said. School counselors are performing an increased number of suicide-­risk screenings and are seeing more children dealing with traumatic events in their lives. Some of that increase represents the tremendous growth in the school district. But state and national data also suggest a rising trend in mental health issues among school-aged children and a growing number of suicide attempts.

“There are some soft signs; there are some hard signs, and just the feel that the level of need is just increasing, increasing, increasing,” Reinhart said.

The youth volunteers visit schools to talk about mental health issues and to help create a culture in which teens feel comfortable asking for help.

“There’s such power in youth-to-youth communications, both on the lines and in the classroom,” Moser said.

She said about 25 to 35 percent of calls are high acuity calls, which involve issues such as suicide, self-injury, abuse and sexual violence. But kids can call to get help with other issues such as stress and anxiety, their relationships with parents and managing their day-to-day lives.

“In many cases, we’re talking or communicating with young folks who have never really experienced stress and anxiety before, and they don’t really know what’s happening. They don’t really know what to do,” Moser said. “It’s a really wonderful opportunity for us to normalize those feelings or crises in such a way that we’re helping them understand that it’s OK to feel the way you feel.”

The volunteers can offer teens skills to help them manage their issues or connect them with other resources where they can get additional help. While the line has helped thousands of callers over the years, Moser said the teen volunteers also benefit from their time there.

“They walk away from this experience, in all honesty, not at all afraid to talk to others about mental health,” she said. “They’re so open-­minded and open-hearted in such an organic way, primarily because of the experience they’ve had on the lines helping others.”

Hanna Lilly, 19, has been a YouthLine volunteer in Portland since her sophomore year of high school. She’s now graduated but continues to volunteer during her gap year before she leaves for college at the end of the summer.

“I think that what makes YouthLine work is the fact that there is kind of that relatability and rapport that we are able to build with a fellow teenager,” she said. “Being a young person in today’s age is a lot different than what it was like 10, 20, 50 years ago.”

Lilly said there are nuances in the way kids communicate today that adults often don’t pick up on, and there are issues that are relevant for teens today that weren’t even a decade ago.

The astronomical cost of college, for example, is adding additional stress for kids around grades and academic achievement. While technology can be helpful for students, it also causes problems such as cyberbullying and the fear of missing out, which can be a byproduct of social media.

“I think that has created this funnel of stress that rests upon the shoulders of students and that can translate to a lot of different issues,” Lilly said.

Many of the calls deal with heavy, emotional topics, but Lilly has learned to lean on her fellow volunteers and the YouthLine supervisors for support.

“I’ve never walked away feeling like I’m carrying someone else’s weight or someone’s sadness,” she said.

The work can be tremendously rewarding. About a year ago, Lilly spoke with a 12-year-old whose pain and anguish were so deep the caller repeated the words “I want to die” over and over.

“That was a really heavy call for me to handle, not only because of the content they were talking about but because they were so young,” she said.

Throughout the call, she sat and listened and tried to talk through all the issues troubling the caller. At one point, the caller started crying and Lilly started tearing up.

“There was a lot of emotional connectivity that has happening through this call,” she said. “That was incredibly powerful to me.”

By the end of that call, she had helped that teen create a plan to stay safe.

“They had come to a place of peace for least the moment,” she said. “That was not only a really emotionally intense call, but one that I felt pretty accomplished about.”

— Reporter: 541-633-2162, mhawryluk@bendbulletin.com

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