Volunteering as a Crisis Counselor Helped Me Cope with My Mental Health
When my high school Physics teacher handed me a note reading “Come to the social worker’s office at your earliest convenience,” for a few moments I had no idea what the reason could be. Then, I remembered. Earlier that day I had been chatting with my English teacher, and I told him “I just don’t want to do it anymore.”
I was 17 and in my senior year of high school. Middle and high school were not great times for me. Peers bullied me throughout middle school. By high school they’d forgotten about my existence, but it didn't matter. They'd shattered my self-confidence like a plate on concrete. Right before my junior year, I got a diagnosis of ulcerative colitis. Ulcerative colitis is a chronic disease that causes the immune system to attack the colon. It's exactly as fun as it sounds. When I voiced my desire for everything to stop, I was facing a nasty recipe for mental health problems: a genetic predisposition for depression, a challenging time in the course of my chronic illness, the stress of high school, and impending college applications.
Things spiraled downhill after my appointment with the school social worker. I hadn't noticed the dark puddles of depression and anxiety welling up and threatening to drown me until someone else pointed them out. It validated that I was, in fact, going through something difficult. The resulting phone call to my parents meant I no longer had to painstakingly hide my feelings. I spent days crying and nights lying awake, jolting in fear any time I got close to drifting into sleep.
Fortunately, I got help. My parents went out of their way to spend time with me. I still vividly remember walking under the vibrant autumn leaves with my mom. the wind in my hair as my dad and I biked together. I saw a therapist through my mom’s Employee Assistance Program. My doctor prescribed me an antidepressant. I started sleeping through nights again.
Things slipped back down. I started self-harming. I cried for a long time in my English teacher’s room, wanting to explain the self-harm but not able to. Somehow, he knew and asked if I had hurt myself. The involvement of the school social worker hadn’t been helpful the last time, so my English teacher gave me an ultimatum. Either I could tell my parents, or he would.
I got help again, but this time the climb out of the dark hole was less like climbing a staircase and more like trying to climb out of a well on a rope after missing rope day in gym class. I made progress, but I slipped down a lot, too. I knew I wanted to stop self-harming. One night, I held the safety pin I used open in my hand. I stared down at it, tears gliding down my face, for what felt like hours. With all the willpower I could muster, I put it down. Desperate, I ran a Google search for “text based hotline,” and Crisis Text Line was there. My first conversation with a Crisis Counselor made me believe for the first time that I wasn’t alone and I could get through it.
I’m 21 now. Since then, I’ve graduated high school, almost finished a Bachelor’s degree in psychology, and decided that I want to be an Art Therapist when I “grow up”. As soon as I settled on a career in psychology, I applied to volunteer as a Crisis Counselor myself.
It feels cliche to say my training has changed my life, but it absolutely has. I learned to explore and validate the feelings of people in crisis, identify a goal for them, and work to find a solution. That solution can be as short-term as getting through the night, or as long-term as seeking therapy. It helps me help my friends, and it even helps me help myself. It’s challenging, but this training has also given me a way to fight my more negative thoughts. I can think to myself “How would I respond to a texter in this situation?” With effort, it takes me from “I hate everything about myself,” to “It’s ok to feel what I’m feeling. I have strengths. I’m creative and compassionate. What can I do to get through tonight?” And now, I even have some answers to get through those tough nights. Some tried and true referrals Crisis Counselors give out often are the 54321 exercise and a breathing animation. I've saved the gif to my phone, and both are valuable first steps I can take to calm myself down.
There are a few things I wish I could say to my 17-year-old self, and to anyone feeling what I felt. You don’t have to hide your feelings. You don't have to handle everything alone. You are stronger than you feel. You will make it through this. You don’t have to be completely ok all the time to help someone else. Above all, as I tell every texter I talk to, you matter, and you deserve support.
Ready to provide support to those in crisis? Apply to be a Crisis Counselor and start changing lives.
Carolyn Schweda is a 21 year old Crisis Counselor in Wisconsin. She loves animals, making art, and helping others. She posts her art on her Instagram account.