Seventy thousand people call San Francisco’s suicide crisis line each year. If someone's making that call, it usually means they're on the verge of harming themselves, and in severe emotional distress. But San Francisco has a service that’s aimed at reaching people before they’re on the brink of crisis — the San Francisco Mental Health Peer-Run Warm Line.
Daisy Matthias is a Warm Line counselor. Being a peer counselor means Matthias has dealt with a lot of the same mental health issues that people are calling her about. She’s not a certified therapist, but she has other qualifications.
“For example, I'm a person who has been diagnosed with a learning disability, a person who has social anxiety, and I don't know what else,” she says.
The Warm Line is different from more common suicide hotlines.
“You don't really need to have a mental health issue to call the Warm Line,” says Matthias. “If you're stressed out and you need someone to talk to, that's enough for us to be here.”
Warm Line manager Melodee Jarvis says the Warm Line “provides a space for people to talk about things before they reach a level where it would be considered a mental health concern.”
Jarvis has managed the Warm Line since it launched in 2014. It started with funding from a state grant aimed at reducing hospitalizations for mental health issues and improve access to support services. Warm Line counselors are equipped to refer callers to things like support groups or outside therapy options.
“I remember our very first day,” recalls Jarvis. “I was training all the new counselors who are here and we only received one call.”
Jarvis says they’re now up to about 80 calls per day, and a lot of those calls are coming from outside the Bay Area. The Warm Line’s online chat service is being used by people around the world. This wide reach says something to her; “I think it's a sign that this is a very necessary service that's needed in every county and every state,” she says.
Jarvis says part of the Warm Line’s appeal is the peer support model. In a more traditional situation, a therapist or crisis line counselor doesn’t reveal anything personal. But Jarvis has found that hearing from someone who’s been there before does a lot for Warm Line callers.
“For example, somebody might call and say, ‘I've just started this medication and it's making me feel really nauseous all the time and it's just really hard to get through my day.’ Well, our counselors as peer counselors can say, ‘I've taken that medication, too, and here is how I like coped with that.”
Jarvis describes interactions such as these as “sort of revolutionary.”
Peer counselor Daisy Matthias agrees that the personal nature of Warm Line calls is a plus.
“Sometimes it can feel like you're talking to a friend,” says Matthias.
Matthias says that feeling is something she could have used when she was struggling with her own mental health, starting back in high school.
Matthias, whose hair is dyed a combination of yellow, orange, red, and purple, describes her family as a “very conservative Catholic, traditional family from Mexico, and I'm a very liberal pagan feminist. Oh, and on top of that I was also that weird goth girl in school.”
Matthias looked outside her home for someone to talk to.
“I didn't really have very good Internet access at the time, so I mostly [called] 411, but they mostly transferred me to crisis lines,” Matthias says. “But there were moments where a crisis line would not be the one to help me, because I needed to talk and vent, but since they're trained to handle people who are in crisis who will hurt themselves, I didn't feel I could go to them immediately.”
Matthias says there were some moments when a crisis line was the right option. She says those conversations could have been more helpful.
“If I would have heard, ‘I’ve been there too,’ I think I would have been better off,” Matthias says.
Now, as a Warm Line peer counselor, Matthias gets to have that conversation she needed all the time. She’s just on the other end.
“There are people who call that have anxiety that actually help me because not only do I share things that help me with my anxiety, they tell me things that help me help them. It ends up benefiting both,” Matthias says, adding, “It's so great to hear some common stories that we all have.”
They’re stories that don’t get talked about out in the open very much. But, there are lines open for them.
Right now, like the handful of other warm lines around the country, the San Francisco Warm Line operates on limited hours. But Warm Line Manager Melodee Jarvis says the plan is to go 24-7 as soon as possible.
The phone number for the San Francisco Mental Health Peer-Run Warm Line is 1 (855) 845-7415. Counselors are available Monday through Thursday from 7am to 11pm and Friday through Sunday from 7am to 7pm. For more information, click here.
This piece first aired in May, 2015. Since then, Dilhara Abeygoonesekera has replaced Melodee Jarvis as program manager.