For suicide hotline workers, pranks are an unfortunate reality
Published: April 24, 2012
CANANDAIGUA, N.Y. — In the last three years working at the Veterans Crisis Line, responder Christina Tallie says she has had fewer than 10 exchanges with callers that have traumatized her. But she still gets anxious recalling them.
The worst involved a lengthy, frustrating phone call with a frantic veteran that ended with a sudden gunshot. She was so upset, she couldn’t work the rest of the day, and though about quitting.
“I told [the supervisors] that I just had to walk away,” she said. “I just ... It was more than I could handle right then.”
When police arrived at the caller’s address hours later, they discovered it was a prank. That doesn’t make the memory any easier for Tallie.
Staffers with the VA’s suicide prevention efforts say pranks are sad but commonplace, not just in their office but across the crisis hotline industry. Caitlin Thompson, clinical care coordinator for the veterans hotline, said that prank calls to their offices total hundreds each week.
The problem has gotten even worse as the VA expands into online-chat and text-message outreach. Sometimes, callers just use the services as a catch-all answer service, for veterans programs or anything else they can think of. One recent texter keeps asking if he can pay his phone bill using the suicide hotline.
But often, prankers prefer the voiceless services because they’re harder to trace, and make mischief easier for the fakers.
“With the live phone calls, sometimes you can hear [the caller] laughing, or other people giggling in the background,” Tallie said. “You don’t get that on a computer.”
In extreme cases -- like the fake gunshot call Tallie took – the prank can end up in criminal charges for those involved. But Thompson said officials don’t obsess over the problem, and often try to move past the disgusting deception.
“Unfortunately, it’s just part of the job,” she said.
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