Since September, the last thing a caller to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline hears before being connected to a counselor is this: “Your call may be monitored or recorded for quality assurance purposes.”
As a Lifeline counselor, this alarms me.
Suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the U.S., and rates have increased in nearly every state from 1999 through 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A person contemplating suicide is often dealing with societal prejudice surrounding mental health. When people call the hotline, they are often sharing secrets. Children may worry they are disappointing their parents by struggling with depression or other problems. Adults may fear losing their livelihood if their struggles become public.
In contrast, a suicide hotline counselor is a stranger on the phone who has been trained to connect and provide help. A private conversation used to be implicit. Now this sense of confidentiality is at risk, and it could have dire consequences.
When Lifeline counselors were informed that callers would hear the call “may be recorded” addition to the greeting, I felt ill. I quickly emailed the director of our local call center in Pennsylvania, expressing concern about what experienced Lifeline counselors know with certainty: A sense of anonymity is essential for many callers.
The response I received explained that many Lifeline call centers already record the calls. Since our calls are routed, they’re directed to a call center based on area code. For example, if someone is standing in California with a phone number starting with 609, their call will be sent to a New Jersey Lifeline call center. The notification prompt was added to comply with differing state wiretapping laws.
Federal and most state laws require one-party consent, meaning the recorder does not have to reveal the call is being recorded. But 11 states — including California and Pennsylvania — require two-party consent; all parties must be informed the call is being recorded.
Such a bureaucratic reason doesn’t take into consideration the emotional state of the person in crisis. Being told you “may be recorded” may inhibit people from sharing their distress with a Lifeline counselor.
As one of those counselors, I thoroughly understand why a caller to a suicide prevention line needs to speak with someone who will listen without judgment. I was once in a similar place. I woke up every day thinking the mental anguish would never end. A smiling mask hid my pain and helped me push through each day. My family encouraged me to get help. I started by seeing my family doctor, who referred me to a psychiatrist.