It's not a hot line. It's a "warm" line.
Anybody can call. You don't have to be a consumer of mental health services.
"It's one-to-one, a human being to talk to another human being," says Rhonda Lindenbaum, Mental Health Services Director for Washington County Mental Health Authority Inc. Volunteers provide conversation, support and compassion to those who need it.
Many of the volunteers who answer the phones are people who have "been there." They are consumers of mental health services in Washington County.
David Keefer, 60, volunteers on The Listening Line. The Hagerstown resident says he has experienced depression and loneliness firsthand and believes there is a definite need for the service. Keefer has a regular spot on the volunteer schedule and makes himself available for extra hours if needed. There have been evenings when he's felt a little low, but he's forced himself to go in and take calls. Helping others helps him.
"I feel 99 percent better," he says. "I feel uplifted myself."
Keefer also has experienced the service at the other end of the telephone line, having called in for support a couple of times. He considers The Listening Line important and would like to see it expanded to cover weekends - especially weekend evenings. Start-up funding was provided by Washington County Gaming Commission and Wal-Mart for the coordinator's position and small stipends to help with volunteer's expenses.
Volunteers also include people Robertson calls secondary consumers - families and friends of people who are consumers of mental health services. The program also has one or two mental health professionals volunteering and would welcome others.
Volunteers are trained to recognize and refer crisis or suicide calls. Keefer says he recently received a crisis call. He handled it according to the service's procedures and admits to being little shaken afterward. But he remained on duty to take other calls.
Some common sense
Those who answer the phones offer suggestions - common sense suggestions - for dealing with problems, Robertson says. For example, if someone is having trouble sleeping, they might suggest a glass of warm milk or a warm bath to relax.
"By no means do we offer therapy," she emphatically adds.
The Listening Line is one of only two such services in the country, according to Robertson. The other, a 24-hour service actually called "The Warm Line," is in Cincinnati.
Robertson says there's a need for this type of service.
The local program was started in part because Washington County Hospital was receiving a number of noncrisis calls, taking time needed for emergencies. Therapists' offices usually are closed in the evenings. There are a lot of single parents in the area, and there are people who do not have family to call on, Robertson says.
Although the program is young - it started April 1 - 23 volunteers are taking calls. About five to six calls averaging nine minutes each are coming in every evening, according to Robertson. So far callers' ages range from 10 to 78 years old. About twice as many women as men are calling, she adds.
This is typical of our society, Lindenbaum says.
"Men a lot of times feel that they should be able to handle things themselves," Robertson says.
To reach the Listening Line, call 301-790-5054.