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Noncrisis line lends a wise, sympathetic ear for troubled callers

Howard Trachtman, who helped launch the line, said those working the phones tend to be ''very sensitive.' Howard Trachtman, who helped launch the line, said those working the phones tend to be '"very sensitive."
By Carey Goldberg
Globe Staff / February 5, 2009
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"Peer warm line. This is David. How can I help?"

Pause.

"It sounds like you're really upset."

David Wilson, a longtime veteran-to-veteran counselor, has talked many a man through many a hard time, but this conversation on Monday was a milestone. It was his maiden call as part of a new Boston institution: The city's first help line for mentally ill callers that is staffed entirely by people who have personal experience with major psychiatric illness.

The warm line - which is similar to a suicide hot line except that callers do not have to be in crisis - has just gotten underway three afternoons a week at 1-877-PEERLNE (877-733-7563).

"Our goal is to talk through problems before they become a crisis situation, thereby eliminating the need for hospitalization," said Amy Dwyer, the warm line coordinator. "If you let things build and build, they become overwhelming."

Wilson attempted to reassure his first caller, who wanted to know how to find a psychiatrist.

"I've been in positions where I don't know whether I'm coming or going, and sometimes it's good to just talk to somebody," he told him. "Don't sit there and beat yourself up about it. The fact you're calling is the first step. That means you want to help yourself. Congratulations!"

More than three dozen such peer-run call-in services have been launched around the country and in Canada in recent years, including several others in Massachusetts. Officials in New York City are exploring the possibility of starting one there.

"They seem to be spreading all over the place," said Jody Silver, director of consumer affairs for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. "Especially during this fiscally challenging time we're all going through, this would be a cost-savings approach because it would cut down on expensive crisis services."

The bad economic times are prompting reports from around the country that the numbers of calls to mental health hot lines are increasing.

At Samaritans Inc., with offices in Boston and Framingham, round-the-clock volunteers who take more than 100,000 calls per year have seen a notable increase of late in calls from people with economic concerns, executive director Roberta Hurtig said.

The new warm line "is another good thing," Hurtig said. "We're so lucky living in Greater Boston, in that there's a variety of services that are available, and heaven knows the need is great."

The warm line, based at Boston Medical Center, is just across the hall from the office of Boston's psychiatric emergency team for people on public health insurance. Calls are now beginning to flow back and forth across the hall.

The emergency team sends two or three nonurgent calls per eight-hour shift over to the warm line, staffers say. And any warm-line caller who sounds imminently suicidal is sent across the hall to the emergency clinicians.

The warm line's proximity to emergency services makes it unusual, said Howard Trachtman, co-executive director of the Metro Boston Recovery Learning Community, which helped establish it.

But the fact that it is staffed by peers is its central appeal, Trachtman said. A peer may have a different mental illness from a caller, but chances are the peer has been through many similar experiences. Those working the phones tend to be "very compassionate, very caring, very sensitive, because we've been damaged, we've been traumatized . . . and we've been very sick, and that's changed our view," he said.

Funded by the state Department of Mental Health, the warm line is operating on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Organizers hope to expand those hours.

Staff members say their main aim is not to diagnose or to treat, but simply to listen and reflect back what callers say, bringing in their own experience when relevant. Much as Wilson did as he was wrapping up his first call.

"I've been where you are, man, and it works out; it just does," he said. "But you've got to do the legwork, OK, my friend?"

Carey Goldberg can be reached at goldberg@globe.com

Howard Trachtman, who helped launch the line, said those working the phones tend to be 'very sensitive.'

PEER ASSISTANCE

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