Enjoy this free article courtesy of Choices, the health, social-emotional learning, and life-skills magazine for grades 7–12 

"We Are Here for You"

These teens answer calls and chats (and texts) when someone their own age needs to talk. The conversations are saving lives. 

Left to right: Eugenie Park, Celeste Coler, and Megan Allen are volunteers at Teen Link, a phone and chat helpline for young people in the Seattle area.

It is 6 p.m. on a Tuesday night. Two young women sit on an overstuffed sofa in a cheery office, idly drawing with colored pencils. Another teen, a young man, sits at a table facing a large monitor that displays an incoming chat message from a teen in crisis. He types a reply. The phone begins to ring, and a fourth teen, Fiona, slips on a headset. “Thank you for calling Teen Link. How can I help?” 

“Um, yeah. Hi. I’m just calling. I mean, there’s just a lot going on. I just thought I should talk to somebody.” The caller is whispering so softly he is almost inaudible.

“That’s why we’re here. Go for it. I’m listening,” Fiona coaxes. 

“I feel really bad lately, but I don’t know why. I want to talk to my mom, but I can’t. It’s completely impossible.” The caller inhales sharply and starts to cry. 

“Oh man, that’s a really tough place to be,” responds Fiona sincerely. She pauses for a moment, then asks, “Why do you think it’s impossible to talk to your mom?”

The call continues for another half hour. Eventually, the caller calms down a little. He and Fiona work out a couple of scenarios in which the caller could open up to his mother. Then Fiona checks the directory on her computer and gives the caller contact information for two support groups in his area.

“I’ll try the first one, but if it bombs, I’m calling back tomorrow night for new ideas,” the caller says with an awkward laugh before hanging up. 

Young Enough to Understand 

Fiona is just one of 84 teens who volunteer at Teen Link, a confidential telephone and web chat helpline for people ages 13-20. The program serves the Seattle area and is one of only a handful of teen helplines in the country. From 6 to 10 p.m. each night, young people going through tough situations like depression, bullying, substance abuse, and relationship problems can reach out and find a sympathetic listener on the line. In 2017, Teen Link fielded 3,717 calls and chats.

Teen Link was born out of a tragedy 23 years ago, when Audra Letnes, 16, was murdered by her boyfriend after a year-long abusive relationship. Audra’s mother had tried desperately for months to get her to use local support services, but Audra never felt comfortable opening up to an adult. In the end, her inability to connect with someone she felt could really understand her situation left Audra isolated. Audra’s mom, who was a crisis hotline staffer herself, knew how helpful it can be to talk to someone you trust. She decided that teens like Audra needed their own hotline where they knew teens would pick up and listen. Teen Link was launched to honor Audra’s memory.

Eugenie Park, 17, a high school junior in Seattle, volunteers on Teen Link’s Outreach Team, and the hotline’s teen-to-teen support is what she finds so special: “When we have another teen on the other side of the phone, they understand all these unique circumstances that our age group is going through right now. It can be really comforting to know that.” 

Thousands of Conversations

Sameer, 18, volunteers as a crisis counselor at Crisis Text Line

If you’ve ever tried to be there for a friend struggling with the pain of their parents’ divorce or the stress of getting cut from a team, you know how hard it can be. You worry about saying the wrong thing, or maybe you become frustrated when what you do say doesn’t help. So how do the Teen Link volunteers do it, night after night after night—and for kids they don’t even know?

To prepare its teen volunteers, Teen Link provides up to 60 hours of extensive training, including presentations on problems affecting teenagers, role-plays about issues team members are apt to encounter, and a month just listening to incoming calls. “We do a lot of training to understand the issues that Teen Link deals with on a deep level,” Eugenie says.

Teen Link’s mantra and tagline is “Talk it out,” based on the belief that simply talking to a good listener can save lives. Volunteers are trained in something called active listening, which includes validating the caller’s feelings—letting them know that their feelings are real and OK to have.

They say things like “I’m here for you” and sometimes even share a related experience of
their own. What volunteers don’t ever offer? Advice. Psychologists say people in crisis often need sympathy, empathy, and understanding more than they need solutions.

The volunteers also learn a crucial lesson early on: Sometimes they can’t handle every situation on their own. If a call is what they call a “hand- raiser”—meaning it involves abuse or an immediate threat to life—the volunteer will raise a hand to summon an adult staff member. The adult will put on headphones to listen in on the call and offer assistance by whispering in the volunteer’s ear.

So no one is ever alone—not the teens calling in, and not the dozens of teens who volunteer to lend support. Eugenie, Fiona, and the other teens who give hundreds of hours a year to Teen Link know that they cannot solve all problems or save everyone from harm.

But what they can do is be there. 

Like what you see? Then you'll love Choices, our health, social-emotional learning, and life-skills magazine for grades 7–12 

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