Rethinking crisis: The usefulness of helplines and their far-reaching effects

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Last fall was one of the most hectic times of my life. As everyone around me celebrated holidays and welcomed the new year, I felt increasingly more isolated, consumed with studying for the GRE and finishing my personal essays for grad school. One night, buried under GRE test-prep books, I remember thinking of how inadequate I felt, of what would happen if none of my desired schools accepted me.

Sitting on my bed, looking at the stark white walls around me, a sharp twinge struck my right temple, followed by a dull, incessant throbbing in my ears. Pulse racing, I clutched my chest as my heart pounded with a furious resolve. Bright spots flashed before me as I tried to stand. Grabbing the wall nearest me, I did the first thing I could think of: I slogged my way to an unoccupied corner of the room, collapsed onto the floor, and cried.

What surprised me most of all about that moment was that I didn’t want to talk to anyone — highly uncharacteristic of me. Never one to shy away from sharing my feelings, I felt so depressed as to believe that no one, not even friends, would want to hear about my problems, that they had their own lives to attend to. Had the thought of calling a helpline even crossed my mind, I would’ve quickly dismissed the idea: my situation, at least to me, was not a crisis (I wasn’t suicidal, only anxious), and I would’ve hated myself for taking time and assistance away from someone who really needed it.

This month, I met with Caree Jewell, senior director of 2-1-1 — an informational referral service that operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year — to inquire about the efficacy of helplines in solving social problems. Under the aegis of Heart of Florida United Way, one of Central Florida’s largest charities for health and human service programs, 2-1-1 assists those who are not only in dire circumstances but in need of social services, such as connecting with a case manager to help with affordable housing, or finding a lawyer who can translate the legalese of a court document. “With every contact, it’s our goal to make sure that every person feels heard and understood,” Jewell said. “We want to match them with the best resource that fits their need.”

Housing and utilities account for more than half of the calls received by 2-1-1 dispatchers. According to the 2017 ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) Report, nearly 50 percent of Central Floridians struggle to maintain income stability. In fact, 2-1-1’s monthly report for June shows that only five percent of callers requested mental health and substance abuse services, emphasizing that helplines do more than de-escalate crises: they solve everyday problems.

While Jewell is sure to note that 2-1-1 does not provide “direct financial assistance,” her specialists, who receive 85 hours of individual training, are well-versed in the eligibility protocols of United Way’s community partners. But, as is the case throughout most of the country, demand for sustainable living far outstrips municipal funding. As Jewell describes it, “We talk to about 500 to 600 people a day who have a financial need for housing or utilities and who are probably eligible for services. Of those individuals, there’s only about 60 to 70 appointments with a case manager to be assessed for eligibility — a lot of people aren’t even aware of how little basic needs assistance is available.”

In our brief meeting, Jewell changed my perspective of helplines. I realized that crises do not happen in a vacuum. Other factors often compound how we respond to ongoing stress and affect our ability to cope. That we are inundated with societal pressures to succeed — to live the American dream, so to speak — also doesn’t help. Veterans, for example, have difficulty re-acclimating to society after serving in the military, the minutiae of civilian life as foreign to them as a PTA meeting. Add to that the depression that comes with losing a sense of purpose, and it’s no surprise that many veterans struggle to find work and end up on the streets.

Though numerous resources exist in Central Florida for veterans, navigating service provider networks can be challenging, if not overwhelming. Facilitating this process, 2-1-1 offers support to veterans and their families via Mission United, whose expertise ranges from education to employment to legal services. Like 2-1-1, Mission United is a helpline that assesses callers’ needs and provides them with the appropriate referrals. “There’s a lot of organizations that are helping veterans, but we try to streamline that process as much as possible,” said Laura Whitfield, director of Mission United.

Whitfield, who served in the marine corps for nine years, maintains a staff of two employees: a dispatcher, whose responsibilities reflect the official designation given by Whitfield, “navigator”; and a case manager, who deals with more involved issues outside the navigator’s scope.

Coming from military backgrounds themselves, both of Whitfield’s team members understand the complex barriers that keep veterans from finding employment and help them acquire the necessary skills to compete in the current job market. “We veterans are loyal. We’re going to stick with an organization if they take good care of us,” explained Whitfield. “But we also want to have advancement opportunities, so those are the types of employers we want to make sure we’re connecting veterans to.”

During our conversation, Jewell defined crisis to me as “having something in your life that overwhelms your ability to cope.” That signification can take many forms. Whether you’re a single mother struggling to pay rent, a veteran dispirited by constant job rejections or a college student shackled by a crippling fear of failure — much like I was when I experienced my panic attack last January — no misfortune, big or small, should go unacknowledged.

To the extent that crises leave a lasting imprint on our lives, it’s to remind us of our strength, of the fact that all of us, at some point, succumb to external forces beyond our control. If I’ve learned one thing about helplines, it’s that they are not limited to emergency situations. When we have the courage to reach out and ask for help, not only do we find how resourceful we truly are, but we contribute to the commonweal precisely because we want to better ourselves.

To reach 2-1-1 by phone, simply dial 2-1-1; for chat, log in to www.HFUW.org and click the link for 211; to text, send your zip code to 898-211; and for email, send your message to uw211help@gmail.com.

To get in touch with Mission United, dial 2-1-1 or visit 211MissionUnited.org for additional information.

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