In Kalamazoo, a Warmline’s early intervention may help some from needing to use a Hotline

There is no need to suffer alone when you can call the Warmline. (Illustration by Brooke O'Neill)

By Zinta Aistars, Southwest Michigan Second Wave

If you are teetering on the edge of a cliff, considering the abyss below, warmline is not for you. You need a hotline. Now. 

For those in crisis, call 2-1-1 or contact Gryphon Place in Kalamazoo at their crisis hotline, 269.381.HELP. These good people are there for you at all hours, ready to help and prevent the worst. 

But maybe that’s not you. 

You may be feeling sad, or lonely, or overwhelmed, or just confused about what to do next. You aren’t standing on the edge of a cliff, but you could really use someone to talk to. For you, a new initiative in Southwest Michigan, called the Warmline, was established in October 2021 by three local nonprofits: Gryphon Place, ASK Family Services, and Southwest Michigan Behavioral Health

Warmline is an early-intervention crisis line. 

“Our role in the Warmline project is through the Children’s Mental Health Block Grant that was provided through special COVID-19 supplement funds through the State Department of Health and Human Services,” says Cathy Hart, clinical grants coordinator at Southwest Michigan Behavioral Health (SWMBH).

“SWMBH wrote the Warmline project and added outreach workers to help families and youth cope with COVID and any other turmoil in their life. We also requested monies to support Gryphon’s Gatekeeper Program, which is a suicide prevention program provided to middle and high school youth so that it could reach out to our eight counties.” 

These grant funds are administered through SWMBH and include the counties of Barry, Berrien, Branch, Calhoun, Cassopolis, Kalamazoo, St. Joseph, and Van Buren. The current grant supports the Warmline project from October 2021 through March 2023.

ASK and you shall receive help

“Warmline serves Southwest Michigan, but anyone from anywhere can call and we will answer,” says Tabi Swain, family services manager at ASK. “We are a 20-person, nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting families and youth with mental health or developmental disabilities. The idea behind Warmline is that it is a peer-run listening line to prevent a crisis, designed to offer support and to connect people with the resources they need.”

Tabi and Earnest the giant stuffed octopus in her office. She says anyone can come in, sit on a soft couch, and hug him if they need a moment. (Taylor Scamehorn)

Warmline is a national initiative that has spread to more than 30 states and growing. With an increasing number of Americans suffering from isolation and burnout — a phenomena exacerbated over the last couple of years by the COVID-19 pandemic — the telephone service offers an empathetic ear for those daily struggles when a caller just needs someone to listen. The listener on the other end is not a mental health professional, but a peer who has gained compassion because they, too, have suffered mental health issues. 

“Peers are easier to talk to,” Swain said. “That’s the biggest thing. People can sometimes feel talked down to by a professional. They may feel resentful about someone telling them what to do. Who better to talk to than someone who is more like you, who has had a similar experience?”

While it can be difficult to measure outcomes in terms of what has not happened, according to the 2021 National Warmline Survey, 85% of respondents nationwide said that using Warmline decreased reliance on crisis services in their region. 

When the survey participants were asked if they thought that using a warmline reduced their need for crisis services, most respondents (79%) stated that it was “very likely” or “somewhat likely.” The majority of callers (89.6%) reported being either very satisfied or satisfied overall with the Warmline service. The majority of survey participants (90.3%) said it was very likely or somewhat likely they would call again. (Dalgin, R. S., Simonne Maline, Peter Driscoll, 2011. Sustaining Recovery through the Night: Impact of a Peer-Run Warm Line.)

Meet Neeka, the warm voice 

Boneeka Davis (left) and Tabi Swain in Tabi’s office. (Taylor Scamehorn)

On the Kalamazoo line, that peer is Boneeka Davis, outreach worker at ASK. 

“They call me Neeka,” she says with a smile. “I’m 25 years old, and I’m a mom of a four-year-old daughter and living with my fiancé. I grew up in the foster system, adopted at age 4. The woman who took me and four others in was a single mom, and I became like a second mom by age 10. I was always putting my own needs on the back burner. I moved out by age 17 and went to college, but I got pregnant and dropped out. After I had my baby, I had post-partum depression and went up in weight — I wasn’t prepared.”

For Davis, it’s a matter of “been there, done that,” and she connects easily with others who are struggling with depression, anxiety, the stresses of being a young mom or dealing with the foster care system. 

Davis has been taking child psychology classes online in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree, and when she came across the job listing at ASK, she knew without hesitation — this was her calling. 

“I cried when I got the job, I was so happy,” she says. “Peer-to-peer support is the new world. I started my job on October 18, 2021, and I was a bit nervous on that first call, but then it felt great. That first call was from a single mom who had just gotten the diagnosis that her child was autistic. She didn’t know what to do or where to turn.”

Davis used an Excel program developed for Warmline to find the caller the resources she needed in her own community. Name the problem and the outreach worker can quickly find support groups, funding resources, medical help, most anything a caller might need. 

“I was able to find a support group for her with other parents of autistic children,” Davis says. “That’s a big part of what I do — connect people to people who can help. But she also just needed to vent. The diagnosis was overwhelming, and she needed to tell someone about that.”

Before taking the Warmline calls, Davis underwent training offered by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to develop listening skills as well as to learn about setting her own boundaries as a matter of self-care.

“It’s called second-hand trauma,” Davis says. “Sometimes it can trigger something in me when I listen to the struggles of others. ASK trains us for that, too. At those times, I take a few minutes after a call for quiet. Just to shut the door and be quiet. I know our ASK team will support me, too. And I can work a hybrid schedule, too, sometimes at the office and sometimes from home.”

“Part of our mission at ASK is to be responsive and supportive for each other, too,” Tabi Swain agrees. “We encourage our staff to personalize their own spaces and make them comfortable. I have Ernest, the giant stuffed octopus in my office. Anyone can come in, sit on a soft couch, and hug him if they need a moment.”

Testing the waters

While it is too early to have measurable outcomes in Southwest Michigan, Swain feels the program has lots of potential based on national studies of peer-to-peer support. For example, Aileen Brady, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Community Alliance, a mental health agency that runs a Warmline in Omaha, said 9 out of 10 people who used the Warmline reported that it prevented their hospitalization. (Sustaining recovery through the night: impact of a peer-run warm line, Rebecca Spirito Dalgin, Simonne Maline, Peter Driscoll, 2011.) 

In another such study, conducted in New York City, 89% of respondents reported that contacting the helpline helped them deal a little or a lot more effectively with their problems. Other national studies corroborate similar results. 

“It’s a new field, but is already being studied extensively,” she says. “Consider what friends are for — a peer that listens to you. Since October, we have only had about 15 calls, but word of mouth is spreading. Calls originally were about COVID, callers wanting to know what to do after receiving a positive diagnosis, or callers going through the grieving process after losing someone to COVID. But we do much more than that. We have what we call the ‘Big Book of Resources’ for every county we serve. We knit together resources for those who need them.”

Anything from housing resources to help finding a home or to obtain assistance to pay rent, to finding activities or a tutor for children when a parent needs a break, to offering guidance for more intense physician and behavioral health services in the caller’s community: ASK and the connections will be made. 

As for some of the drawbacks of such a service, Swain adds: “Callers should know that calling the Warmline is not an immediate fix. It’s still a process, and that can sometimes be frustrating for people. We connect to resources but don’t necessarily solve problems. We do not advocate for people. We help people learn how to navigate and advocate for themselves. We empower for sustainable independence — that’s our goal.”

“We triage the calls from Gryphon Place,” says Ashley Kipp, vice president of Impact at Gryphon Place in Kalamazoo. 

While the ASK Warmline is open for calls for limited hours — from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday — Gryphon Place has its call line open 24/7 every day of the year. 

“We have a live person answering calls at all times,” Kipp says. “It is our role to make that initial warm connection. Then we triage. Eventually all these types of calls will go to ASK, but now we ask about the caller’s needs, if those needs are severe or if they are simply distressed and need someone to talk to.”

Gryphon Place offers crisis counselors and can also connect to 2-1-1 resources. Operators answering calls have undergone a minimum of 40 hours of training that includes role play to learn how to handle different kinds of calls. 

The call line of 2-1-1, Kipp says, can assist with many types of needs, ranging from after-school programs, housing and utility assistance, tax scheduling, food pantries, eviction diversion, mental health services, and more.

“We work with individuals to assess their needs, determine their options, and provide appropriate programs and services,” she says. “It’s important for people to know that help and support is always available. Call and there will be no buttons to push, no recordings—just a live voice.”

Not only the callers are grateful

During ASK Warmline hours, however, that live voice belongs to Boneeka Davis. 

“The feedback we are receiving from other similar service providers in the counties we serve are overwhelmingly grateful,” Swain says at ASK. 

Perhaps most importantly, Warmlines can alleviate the stress on traditional psychiatric crisis hotlines and de-escalate extreme emotional distress that may otherwise lead to hospitalization or other preventable outcomes. Warmline calls can potentially decrease call load to 9-1-1, suicide hotlines, or visits to the emergency department. 

“Budgets have been cut for many mental health organizations,” Swain says. “We can help pick up some of that load. Our goal now is to increase marketing and outreach so that more people in our communities can learn about Warmline.”

“Another advantage is that the Warmline can appeal to the multi-racial and black community, to marginalized populations where mental health has such a stigma,” Davis adds. “You don’t have to give your name or any identifying information when you make the call. In marginalized communities, we are often encouraged not to talk about mental health. It can be a cultural thing. Peers like me can show that they, too, have succeeded despite challenges. It’s OK to ask for help. It’s OK to talk about it.”

Davis does give out her name. And if she is not on the phone at that time of the call, the caller can text her, too. 

“I hope to make a difference in that stigma,” Davis says.

Most of the initial calls Davis has received, she says, have so far come from young mothers in their 20s. If initial calls were COVID-oriented, more recent calls have been simply to “vent,” sharing concerns, and blowing off steam.

“You don’t have to act strong all the time, that’s my message,” Davis says. “I don’t judge. I’ve felt that way, too. Call me — let someone else carry your troubles for a while.”

The free, confidential Warmline can be reached by calling 269.488.7735. Neeka Davis awaits your call.

This story originally appeared in Southwest Michigan’s Second Wave and is part of the Mental Wellness Project, a solutions-oriented journalism initiative covering mental health issues in southwest Michigan, created by the Southwest Michigan Journalism Collaborative. SWMJC is a group of 12 regional organizations dedicated to strengthening local journalism. For more info, visit swmichjournalism.com.

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