What A 24 Hour Free Counseling Hotline Can And Can’t Do For You

By: Nicole Beasley

Updated April 08, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Karen Devlin, LPC

When you feel as though you can't take your emotions and mental state anymore, it can sometimes become necessary to talk to someone right away to get help. When this happens, there are several 24 hour free counseling hotlines that can assist you. But, what happens when you call a crisis hotline? What are they able to do to help you? And what can't they do for you? These critical questions often keep people from using these services.

It is important to know what these 24-hour free counseling hotlines can do to help you, what a hotline can’t do, and what to expect when you call one. There are also other options available to you that can allow you to access the help you need when you need it. Here's what you need to know about 24-hour free counseling hotlines and your other available options to get help.

What Is A 24-Hour Free Counseling Hotline?

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A 24-hour free counseling hotline, also sometimes called a crisis hotline, is typically a toll-free number that you can call from anywhere, from any phone, at any time of the day. There are also some hotlines that allow for text conversations if you are not comfortable talking on the phone. Suicide prevention hotlines such as the national suicide prevention lifeline also fall within this category.

These hotlines are not just for people that are experiencing feelings of hopelessness. In fact, many of the people that call these crisis hotlines are just looking for answers and help in coping with whatever they are dealing with. Many people call hotline numbers to talk when they feel like no one else will understand or when they’re going through something specific that they don’t feel they can trust anyone in their daily life with. 

Additionally, on national hotline websites such as the national suicide prevention lifeline website, there are resources for those who are concerned about loved ones as well as resources for those who are struggling themselves.

Telephone Hotline: Who Will I Talk To?

Crisis hotlines are staffed with trained individuals that can provide you with resources and a listening ear. Sometimes therapists and counselors staff these hotlines, but more often than not, they are staffed by individuals who have received education and training in how to help individuals who are facing a mental health crisis.

The people you will talk to at a 24-hour free counseling hotline are nonjudgmental and are trained to be excellent active listeners. If you need someone to talk to about your problems and struggles, they can do this for you. If you need resources to get help for your mental health, they can help with this also. More information about what these professionals can and can't do for you is listed below.

A Typical Call to a Crisis Hotline

One of the things that keep people from contacting a crisis hotline is that they do not know what to expect when they call into one. The feeling of not knowing what will happen or whether or not it will help is often enough to keep people from using these valuable resources. Here is what a typical call will look like.

Often when you first call a hotline, you will be greeted by an automated message. Usually, you will not get a person immediately. However, depending on the staffing level of the hotline, the wait times are generally very short and under a minute. If there is a high call volume or a problem with staffing, your wait time might be a bit longer.

When a trained crisis worker answers the phone, they will be calm and comfortable with you in their tone and manner. They will listen to you, your emotions, your disturbing thoughts, and your problems with compassion and understanding so that you can have someone to listen to who will not judge you or try to tell you what to do.

With most crisis hotlines, the crisis worker will answer with a greeting, and you can take the conversation where you need to go from there. They do not ask a lot of questions or try to get your background. They will ask you how they can help, and allow you to tell them what the problem is. From there, they can help you find some solutions that will help you both immediately and in the long-term.

The ultimate goal of these hotlines is to make people feel comfortable, supported, and safe. These conversations are not scripted. You can take it wherever you need it to go. You can talk about literally anything, and the crisis worker will be able to listen and offer input if you ask for it. The crisis worker might ask you some questions to get a clearer understanding of the problem, but they will ultimately let you steer the conversation.

If it seems necessary and you are truly in crisis, the crisis worker will be able to help you come up with a safety plan so that you can remain safe while you are trying to get help. They may also suggest intervention, such as an emergency room. It is only in very rare cases that someone is in enough immediate danger to themselves or others that the crisis worker might contact the authorities. But this is something that you likely will not have to deal with.

At the end of the call, the crisis worker will make sure that you have gotten the help you needed. They will go over your action plan with you again so that you can be clear on what you need to do if things get worse. They may also make sure that you have no further questions or need any referrals to additional help.

What A 24-Hour Free Counseling Hotline Can Do

A 24-hour free counseling hotline can do quite a bit for callers who are in crisis. While they cannot provide long-term solutions to mental health crises, they can help you through the immediate moment and make a plan to get additional help. Here are the things that crisis workers can do for you when you call a crisis hotline.

Actively Listen

Crisis workers are trained to be excellent active listeners. This means that they will mostly listen to you talk, although they may ask questions for clarification or interject to let you know that they are genuinely listening. You can talk to a crisis worker about literally anything, and they will sit and listen to you without judgment. The conversation can go on as long or as short as you like.

Develop A Crisis Plan

If you are in crisis, the crisis worker will help you develop a crisis plan, also sometimes called a safety plan or an action plan. The safety plan is a series of steps that you will take if you start to feel worse. Your safety plan may include simple things like making sure that you are not alone, or it might be that you agree to go to the emergency room if symptoms worsen.

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Your safety plan may also include action steps to get long-term help with your mental health problems. This may include planning to contact referrals for ongoing counseling or therapy, contacting a mental health institution for information about getting help and possible admittance, or contacting a psychiatrist for accurate diagnosis and medication treatment.

The safety plan is something that is there to help you when you need it. It is not something that you have to do. No one is going to make you follow through on your safety plan. And, if you begin to feel worse and you aren't comfortable following your crisis plan, you can always call back into the hotline to get additional help.

Provide Mental Health Resource For Additional Help

Because most of the crisis workers who answer hotlines are not counselors or therapists, there is only so much that they can do for you. If you need serious mental health services, you will need to contact psychologists or psychiatrists in your area. These crisis workers can give you referrals to professionals, hospitals, and clinics in your area and online that will be able to give you additional help with therapy or medication treatment.

It is important to note that these crisis workers use a simple directory to find resources in your area. There is no guarantee that these clinics, hospitals, or doctors accept your health insurance or are affordable. You may have to do some homework to see if you can use the referrals or not. In some cases, you may have difficulty using any of the resources, especially if you live in a rural area where there are fewer mental health professionals and facilities.

Contact Authorities When Necessary

The crisis hotline workers can contact the authorities when necessary, but they will not do it lightly. Crisis workers only contact the authorities if you display signs that you are in immediate danger. If you are in immediate danger, the authorities contacted will send officers and possibly a social worker to your home for a wellness check to make sure you are okay.

This intervention is designed to make sure that you are safe, and they may work with you to put into action your safety plan that you developed with the crisis worker. In some cases, the crisis worker may try to keep you on the phone while they are waiting for authorities to arrive.

What A 24 Hour Free Counseling Hotline Cannot Do

While a crisis hotline is easy to access and they can help in some ways, there is much more that these hotlines cannot do for you. A 24-hour free counseling hotline is very limited in the services that it can provide. It is designed for use in an emergency or mental health crisis, not for ongoing therapy or treatment of mental illness and other problems.

Ongoing Mental Health Therapy

If you are having mental health issues, ongoing therapy is usually something that can help. Psychotherapy or counseling with talk therapy can both be highly effective in relieving symptoms of mental illness. With ongoing therapy, you can learn your triggers and overcome them. You will be able to discuss your thoughts, feelings, and problems in a safe environment where there is no judgment and help can be offered.

Because therapy is generally provided by licensed therapists, psychologists, or psychiatrists, it cannot be offered by crisis hotlines. Ongoing counseling is also impossible with 24-hour free counseling hotlines because you are not likely to get the same person each time you call in. This means that you cannot make progress on resolving your mental health issues through the crisis hotline. This can only be done with a clinician that is trained and educated in different types of psychotherapy.

Schedule Mental Health Appointments

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While crisis workers can give you referrals to doctors, hospitals, psychiatrists, psychologists, and clinics, they are not able to schedule appointments for these services. They will only be able to give you the names and phone numbers of the resources. You will then have to call each of them to find out if they work with your insurance or are affordable and to schedule an appointment.

Promise Mental Health Services

Crisis workers can give you referrals, but they cannot promise that you will get help, treatment, or services from those places. These referrals are only meant to be a starting point to help you get the assistance you need. Crisis workers cannot make any promises as to the services you might be provided, if any, at all. Some doctor referrals don't pan out because the doctor is not accepting new patients. A mental health clinic or hospital may not have any available beds. There are a number of reasons why the referrals might not be able to help you.

Additionally, someone at a free hotline cannot diagnose you with mental disorders such as bipolar disorder, eating disorders, panic disorder, or any other mental illness. To get diagnosed with mental disorders, you must see a professional such as a psychiatrist who is able to provide diagnostic services. A psychiatrist can look for symptoms such as symptoms related to eating disorders or bipolar disorder symptoms and give you a proper screening so that they can diagnose you. Additionally, eating disorder treatment, panic disorder treatment, and the treatment of other mental health concerns generally takes longer than one call or session and requires that you see the same licensed professional on a regular basis. This is one of the many ways that calling hotline numbers or getting hotline services from a national hotline cannot replace long-term medical or mental health care.

Most Common Crisis Hotlines

There are hundreds of crisis helplines available. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is perhaps the most widely circulated number when it comes to crisis hotlines. However, there are many other hotlines available, including ones specifically for domestic abuse victims, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, or other specific situations and illnesses. PsychCentral has an excellent resource for finding hotlines that might align with your needs.

When Free Crisis Hotlines Are Not Enough

As you can see, free hotlines are very limited in what they can do. When these hotlines aren't enough to tackle your real mental health issue, there are other options available to you 24/7/365. Online counseling platforms are available to help you cope with your mental health issue or to help you cope with relationship problems and other situations that are causing you distress. These online counseling sites are affordable, convenient, and can offer ongoing therapy with a selected therapist in your state. ReGain is one of the best of these available, especially when it comes to salvaging relationships.


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