Mentally ill lend ears to peers on 'warm line'

January 03, 1998

Mentally ill lend ears to peers on 'warm line'


Associated Press Writer

The telephone rings and Maria Bartee goes to work.

''Listening line.''

The caller is a woman. Bartee knows her voice. She calls several times a night, always frantic.

''Your sister gets you mad? Well don't listen to her,'' Bartee says. ''You don't have to let her get you mad like that.''

She soothes the woman, encourages her to get help.

''You want to get better,'' she says. ''You want to get better like I did.''

Bartee isn't a psychologist. She's a survivor - sober for one year, prone to depression, grateful for counseling.


She helps run the Listening Line, an evening call-in service staffed by people who have been treated for mental illness and used by people, mainly the mentally ill, who feel a need to talk.

It's not a crisis line. It's not a hot line. It's a ''warm line.''

Such services are gaining favor in the mental health field because they seem to help both caller and listener, and they divert non-emergency calls away from costly, professionally staffed hot lines.

''With managed care coming in, a warm line is a very inexpensive way to keep people out of crisis services,'' said Lois Anderson of the Community Mental Health Board in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, which has had a warm line since 1993.

At least 250 similar services are in operation around the country, according to Joseph Rogers, executive director of the National Mental Health Consumers Self-Help Clearinghouse in Philadelphia.

''The ideas is that you don't always have to provide strong, professionally managed clinical services,'' Rogers said. ''What you need are supports that are kind of low-key, in a sense, and available more on an as-needed basis to prevent crises.''

The Listening Line, based in Hagerstown, was launched in April by the Washington County Mental Health Authority as an evening service for clients.

''People were feeling lonely and bored. They didn't need a crisis hot line; they just needed someone to talk to,'' agency director Rhonda Lindenbaum said.

Calls soon surpassed 100 a month while calls to the local crisis hot line decreased. During the Listening Line's first seven months, calls to Washington County Health System's emergency psychiatric hot line averaged 52 a month compared with 84 a month for the same period a year earlier.

''From our end, it allows us to focus on the real emergency care that is provided and that is needed,'' said Mike Shea, the health system's psychological services administrator.

The Listening Line, open weekday evenings from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., is funded by the Washington County Gaming Commission, which collects and distributes money generated by legal gambling in the county. The service received $19,500 in its first year to pay Bartee's coordinator salary plus $50-a-month stipends for six people who staff the phones at least once a week. Twenty-four others are available to voluntarily staff the three phone lines.

Callers are predominantly female, ages 12 to 89, and many suffer from depression, Lindenbaum said.

That's also a common diagnosis among staff members, who receive several days of training in nonjudgmental listening and learning to recognize callers who need professional help.

The staffers said they enjoy helping fellow sufferers.

''The best thing to ever happen to us was the Listening Line,'' said Bartee, who was afraid of people and sought solace in alcohol for years before seeking counseling.

''If it wasn't for the Listening Line, I'd be home, locking my door, not coming out,'' she said. ''It's making us feel like we're a part of something, and that's what we want.''

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