Phone line lends an ear to the lonely

April 20, 2003|by ANDREA ROWLAND

To many who call The Listening Line in Hagerstown, Shirley Alexander and her small force of co-workers are more than empathetic voices on the other end of the line. They are daily companions in a lonely world.

"A lot of our callers are alone. They don't have anybody else to talk to," said Alexander, 49, who has been coordinating the phone service for the past four years. "We listen to whatever they want to say."

Alexander never knows where the conversation will lead when she picks up the ringing phone in a tiny office stocked with several desks, telephones, a refrigerator, microwave, television and equipment that enables Alexander - who is legally blind - to read and process paperwork.


She listens to details about callers' health problems and recent medical appointments, dinner plans, families, new cars, hobbies, job hunts and shopping trips. One teenage caller wanted to tell someone how excited she was to get her driver's license. Another expressed joy about the grades on her high school report card, Alexander said.

Some callers dial The Listening Line five days a week, talking for up to an hour at a time, she said. Two listeners - one female and one male - man the phone lines from 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday.

"I enjoy the callers," Alexander said. "I feel like I know them even though we've never met."

About 150 regular callers dialed The Listening Line a total of more than 1,200 times last year, said Ethel Nemcek, executive director of the Hagerstown-based Office of Consumer Advocacy, which oversees the phone service.

The Listening Line was launched in Washington County more than six years ago under the direction of the Washington County Mental Health Authority after emergency room workers at Washington County Hospital noted a number of healthy patients who just seemed to want somebody to talk to, Nemcek said.

"They were just lonely people," she said. "There was no warm line for them in the Tri-State area."

The Listening Line is called a "warm line" because it isn't intended for crisis calls. That doesn't mean people in crisis never dial in.

"We were able to avert four suicides during the first three years we were in operation," Nemcek said.

The Mental Health Authority created a basic warm line training program to help listeners handle the infrequent crisis calls and respond appropriately to all other calls, said Tom Mills, director of consumer and community relations for the WCMHA.

Listeners also learn how to refer callers to a variety of service agencies in the community, including Citizens Assisting and Sheltering the Abused, the Department of Social Services, the Community Free Clinic and food pantries, Nemcek said.

"We give the callers information. It's up to them to use it," Alexander said. "We're not supposed to give advice, but we can make suggestions."

The warm line also can help keep CASA's hot line open for crisis calls because hot line workers can direct callers who just need an empathetic ear to The Listening Line, CASA Executive Director Vicki Sadehvandi said.

"I don't want to minimize the needs of the lonely people who call in, but my people really don't have the time to stay on the line for a long time," she said.

The Listening Line's $19,000 annual budget is funded through state grants administered by the Mental Health Authority, Mills said. State lawmakers' proposed budget cuts could affect continued funding for The Listening Line and other mental health programs in Washington County, he said.

The Listening Line can be reached at 301-766-7272 and 301-790-5054 weekdays after 5 p.m. The TDD number is 301-393-0731.

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