Course allows students to serve on suicide hotline

Students in Lisa Brown’s new Honors College course will spend the fall semester saving lives.

Students will serve a minimum of eight hours a week volunteering as operators on a suicide hotline through the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, as well as meet twice a week in class to process their experiences.

Brown, who created the new course, said it will offer hands-on, clinical experience that students can rarely find elsewhere.

“I think that even as a clinician, I have worked with people who have been patients who’ve been suicidal,” she said. “No matter what point you are in your clinical career, when you encounter somebody who is suicidal, it is something that makes your heart beat faster, and you take it really, really seriously.”

Brown said the majority of students enrolled are interested in pursuing clinical careers in medicine or psychology. Most students entering these fields have research experience, but not clinical practice, she said.

Annie Phillips, a sophomore majoring in microbiology, applied for the course after she read about it in an Honors College online bulletin.

“Not only would I be taking a class, but I’d be getting involved with the community and getting volunteer experience,” she said. “I liked that it was both at the same time.”

Phillips recently completed the suicide risk management training through the Crisis Center, but said she still feels apprehensive about the upcoming course.

“I’m excited,” she said. “I think it will be a great experience. I am a little nervous about how serious it is, dealing with people who are suicidal and in a crisis situation. That’s a lot of pressure on you.”

However, Brown said she isn’t worried that the students will be put in an overwhelming position. Trained counselors at the Crisis Center will be on site to provide on-the-spot coaching to the operators, as they can listen in on the phone calls and assist student volunteers with their immediate needs.

Each of the eight students enrolled in the class were hand-picked through a selective process, including an extensive criminal record check, fingerprinting, an interview with Brown, a tour of the Crisis Center, the completion of a two-day training on suicide risk management and a 36-hour training on substance abuse preparing the students on counseling.

“I felt that because this was a really unique class, where potentially you’re dealing with people where they’re at a point where they’re actually considering death as an option,” Brown said. “It’s something that I wanted to make sure students really had a chance to think it over and were presented with all the background information prior to enrolling to make sure it was a good fit. I recognize that this may not be for everybody, and it shouldn’t be for everybody.”

Students can set their own volunteer schedules. Brown said different times of day lend themselves to different caller profiles.

“My understanding is that you have people who call in on a regular basis in the daytime as their sense of social support, when they’re having big life problems,” she said. “Then, you have people who get inebriated, and they tend to call in the evening hours.”

Carissa Caricato, marketing and media director for the Crisis Center, which accepts volunteers, said the center received more than 120,000 calls last year and has support systems available for anyone in Hillsborough County who dials 2-1-1.

Brown said the course is enriching for both her and her students.

“This is real-world training that will really influence them for the rest of their lives,” she said. “I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for students. It’s going to be a great experience for them … It’s wonderful to see somebody who’s pushing their learning experience and really getting something that’ll be beneficial to them – it’s why I teach.”