What happens when you call a helpline?

September 9th, 2020

When teens are feeling distressed, adults often tell them ‘Call a counselling line!’ But some teens are nervous about picking up the phone, and don’t know what to expect. Adults can make it easier for teens to get help by explaining what’s likely to happen next.

Keep in mind that helplines are not a substitute for mental health services. Some people have complex problems and need professional help, face-to-face, on a regular basis. But calling a helpline can be a great first step to help teens understand what they’re going through and decide what to do next.

So, what can adults tell teens about contacting a counselling line?

Firstly, you don’t need your parents’ permission – or anyone else’s permission. You can call by yourself, whenever you want. Many helplines are open 24/7.

Secondly, you don’t have to actually talk on the phone! Many helplines also offer counselling via WebChat, text message, video conferencing, or email.

When you do call a helpline, it will start out something like this:

  • You’ll hear a recorded message, explaining how the service works.
  • You may be asked whether you would like a male or female counsellor.
  • You may be asked whether you would like a translator or the National Relay Service for people who are deaf or have a hearing or speech impediment.
  • You may have for wait in a queue before they take your call. Evenings and after school tend to be the busiest times.
  • You don’t have to tell the service your real name.
  • Some services may ask for your postcode, age, or email address. Some online counselling models require you to register, although you don’t have to give your full name.
  • The counselling itself is free. With some helplines, you have to pay the cost of a normal phone call; other helplines are free-call.

When the counsellor answers:

  • Some services will connect you with a qualified mental health professional. Others use trained and experienced volunteers.
  • The counsellor will ask what you would like to talk about, how you’re feeling, and what you need from this call. It’s OK if you’re not sure, or if you feel nervous at first – this is normal. The counsellor is there to help you figure it out, and there’s no hurry.
  • You can talk to the counsellor about any subject you like, big or small. It’s their job to listen respectfully, without judging you.
  • The counsellor may ask you how long this problem has been happening for, who else knows about it, and whether you have tried anything else to resolve the problem.
  • The counsellor will help you to see your own strengths, as well as your difficulties.
  • The counsellor will help you to understand what you’re feeling and figure out what you want to do next. They can connect you with other support services.
  • If it’s relevant, the counsellor might ask you whether you have ever had any mental health problems in the past, whether you’re using alcohol or drugs, or whether you are in contact with any other services.
  • There is no set period of time for your call. Some teens just want to talk for five minutes; others talk for much longer.

When the call is over:

  • The counsellor will keep everything you say private and confidential. There’s just one exception: if you’ve told the counsellor that you, or someone else, is being seriously harmed, or is at risk of serious harm. If the counsellor hears that, they will have to tell an emergency service, to make sure everyone is kept safe.
  • If you call the helpline again, you can ask to speak to the same counsellor you had last time, if that counsellor is available.
  • Most helplines also have great websites, with lots of information about topics like mental health, friendship, family, and more.

Popular helplines in Australia include:

In an emergency, always call triple zero.