It’s 7pm on a warm school night in Phoenix. Teenagers, some with backpacks full of homework, others with hands full of snacks, stream into a nondescript building in the central corridor. Their conversations and laughter carry.
It’s common teenage stuff: boy bands, high school gossip, crushes, the stress of school work.
Yet they are gathering, as teens have for decades, not to eat pizza or go bowling but to be the ear for others who may be in trouble.
Teen Lifeline, created in 1986 by a local behavioral health provider, took more than 12,600 calls last year—with most coming from Arizona kids. The calls are answered by peers—teen volunteers who have completed extensive training before taking their first call.
“Our goal is to help inform the caller,” says Nikki Kontz, clinical director for the organization. “If they are considering running away and living on the streets, we discuss the legal consequences so they make informed decisions. We are helping callers understand they aren’t living in a vacuum; there are consequences to decisions. We want the caller to understand the larger issue and empower to make the healthiest decision. We also always encourage seeking help from a healthy adult in their life. Sometimes this is the parent, sometimes not.”
Teen Lifeline took more than 12,600 calls last year—with most coming from Arizona kids.
One quarter of the calls received deal specifically with suicide or self-injury. However, Kontz says, all calls are considered suicide prevention because of their mission to help callers make good choices.
Kontz is passionate about her work at Teen Lifeline—and for good reason.
“My sophomore year in high school, I lost a close friend to suicide,” she says. “I saw the devastation it caused in our social circle. I went to a Catholic school and the way of handling it wasn’t effective or empathetic. Luckily, I had a teacher who knew about Teen Lifeline. It was a good connection for me, and I was able to help kids who were going through this. I didn’t want anyone else to suffer.”
In the process, Kontz “found her second family.”
“As a teenager you don’t feel like you can make a difference; everything is connected to adults,” she says. “With Teen Lifeline, I made a difference. I connected with individuals, and because of that I stayed. I volunteered all through high school and college, and when I moved home from graduate school I was hired.”
Kontz describes a recent call.
“A freshman in high school called the hotline a couple times,” Kontz recalls. “She, and her family, considered her an ‘All-American girl.’ She was in honors classes, in multiple clubs at school, well liked, and a big contender in a competitive sport. Like with a lot of teens, it all became really overwhelming. As the stress piled on she began isolating herself to study and practice but it wasn’t helping her grades or her sport. That’s when she began to feel suicidal.
“She had heard about Teen Lifeline in school and decided to call. She describes it as the first time someone really listened to her without judgement, or trying to find a quick fix. In that first call, with the help of the teen counselor, she was able to find reasons to live and was able to finally talk to her parents about how she was feeling. She was able to get the help and support she needed.
“A couple years later she decided to volunteer to give back to other teens the way that the peer counselor she talked to did. She has been with us for three years now and is thriving in her first year of college.”
I want Phoenicians to know that suicide is preventable.
Kontz smiles and continues, “Her story is exactly why I have stayed with Teen Lifeline for so long. It is rare we get to actually see the lasting impact we have on a teen first hand. Usually once they get the help they need, they don’t need to call and we don’t hear back from them. I know we helped them but to actually see the impact is amazing. Teens are incredible. They have such resilience and insight. It is amazing to help them find their inner strength and give them the tools to go forward.”
The line is available for the community at large. Additionally, the organization provides training and materials for families, schools, and communities who are interested.
“I want Phoenicians to know that suicide is preventable. I want people to know what to look for and how to help people that are struggling with giving up hope that things will ever get better. Any teen at any time can give us a call no matter how big or small their problem is,” she says.
For more information, call 602-248-TEEN or visit www.teenlifeline.org.
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