Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of calls and texts to Teen Lifeline, which works to prevent teen suicide in Arizona, has risen exponentially. Here, Michelle Moorhead, executive director of Teen Lifeline, discusses ways to aid the nonprofit, the role of its teen volunteers and in what ways it is honoring Teen Suicide Prevention Awareness Month.
What prompted the start of the nonprofit? In 1985, the controversial film “Surviving,” starring Molly Ringwald, was broadcast on prime-time television, launching a national conversation about teen suicide. At the time, Arizona ranked second in the nation for its teen suicide rate. Local mental health leaders developed Teen Lifeline as an innovative peer-to-peer hotline service to address teen suicide in the Phoenix area. During the past 35 years, trained teenage peer volunteers at Teen Lifeline have responded to more than 315,000 calls and texts, helping teens in crisis find hope and healing.
What is the greatest reward in being involved with the nonprofit? For our volunteers, staff and board members, the most rewarding part of being involved with Teen Lifeline is knowing you were instrumental in saving a life – by responding to a call or text message to the hotline or by providing suicide prevention training at a school.
Teen Lifeline staff members also have the distinct pleasure of seeing the amazing growth that happens among our peer volunteers. They come to us as young teens, no different than the kids that are calling the hotline for help. They grow and mature through their work on the hotline and saving lives. It becomes a part of them. When they leave the hotline, they take with them a belief that they can make a difference in their world.
What is the biggest challenge the nonprofit faces? We are always looking for new ways to reach a teen before they think about or attempt suicide. We want all teens to feel hope and connection. When we lose a child to suicide in Arizona, we want to know why they didn’t call us and what we can do to prevent the next suicide. We also work hard to keep our services free. We are constantly looking for new funding that will enable us to continue saving lives and help us reach even more teens.
In what ways has the pandemic affected Teen Lifeline? Teen Lifeline volunteers answered nearly 30 percent more calls and texts in 2020, than they did the year before. And, during the first eight months of 2021, our call volumes are up 39 percent over the same time period in 2020. We think it’s a positive sign that more kids are reaching out for help and support. That’s exactly what we want them to do.
In fact, one benefit of the pandemic is that people everywhere have begun talking more about mental health and treating mental health issues with the same importance as we treat physical health issues. In some ways, the pandemic normalized conversations about mental health because everyone was facing the issues caused by the pandemic at the same time.
The pandemic also resulted in the need to cancel our largest fundraising events last year. It was nerve wracking to cancel fundraisers and to not know how our organization was going to recover that portion of the budget. Groups like Thunderbirds Charities and individual and corporate donors really stepped up in 2020. The outpouring of support from our community has enabled us to continue providing suicide prevention services to teens in crisis, which is especially important as we see the impacts the pandemic has had on our mental health.
What role do teen volunteers play within the hotline and messaging service? Trained teen volunteers, between the ages of 15 and 19, respond to all calls and texts to the Teen Lifeline hotline from 3 p.m. until 9 p.m. every day of the year. In 2020, our peer volunteers responded to nearly 35,000 calls and text messages from teens in crisis. The peer counseling aspect of Teen Lifeline is the key to our success. Teens want to talk about their problems with other teens. They want to speak with someone who understands what it is like to be a teenager today. Each hotline volunteer receives a minimum of 72 hours of training before they ever answer a call or text. Every call is supervised by Master’s-level clinicians. The training and supervision of our volunteers are the reasons Teen Lifeline became the first peer counselor hotline in the United States to receive Crisis Interventional Accreditation through the American Association of Suicidology in 2003. This accreditation was renewed in 2016.
What are your goals for the remainder of the year? September is Teen Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Our prevention staff will visit more than 30 schools in 30 days during September, providing access to help and making sure kids feel supported and have the tools they need to prevent suicide.
In October and November, we’re looking forward to being able to host our Annual Connections of Hope Gala and Firetag Invitational Golf Tournament events. We are working on making sure these events are as safe as they can be in the midst of a continuing pandemic. And we are eager to have the chance to get together and celebrate our successes from the past year with the donors who have made it possible to continue providing suicide prevention services to teens throughout the state.
We’re also focused on how we can continue responding to the needs of schools and teens. The pandemic has changed so many things, especially for our educators and students. We want teens to know we are available when they need us.
How can readers help? There are several simple ways you can help Teen Lifeline in our mission to save lives.
- Make a donation at TeenLifeline.org/donate.
- If you are a parent with a child in school, look at the back of their student ID and see if it has the Teen Lifeline phone number. Since July 1 of this year, Arizona state law has required all high schools and colleges print a crisis hotline phone number on the back of their student IDs. If you don’t see a phone number on the back of your child’s school identification card, reach out to the school and connect them with Teen Lifeline. We can help implement a student ID program at no cost to the school.
- Use Teen Lifeline as a resource by following us on social media and sharing our posts. You can also share the hotline phone number and Teen Lifeline website, TeenLifeline.org, with teens and parents who may need it.
Does the foundation have any events or fundraisers on the horizon? During the fourth quarter of every calendar year, Teen Lifeline conducts a tax credit campaign. Teen Lifeline is a Qualifying Charitable Organization in the state of Arizona. Individuals who make monetary donations to Teen Lifeline can claim a state income tax credit on their Arizona Personal Income Tax returns of up to $400 for an individual, and a married couple filing jointly can claim up to $800.