Troubled Youths Reach Out To Grassroots Hot Line Counselors Find Calls Increasing, Passing Expectations

November 21, 1990|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,Staff writer

If the calming, pale blue walls of the warm, cheery room could talk, they'd speak of revelations of painful secrets, confusion over family and personal relationships and pleas for help from troubled young lives.

Twenty-four hours a day, convinced they have nowhere else to turn, young people pick up the phone to call a counselor in this room at the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center in Columbia.

Since August, Grassroots has served as a regional counseling center, taking calls from the Baltimore area as part of a new statewide youth-crisis hot line.

"Kids have finally realized here's a place they can turn to," said Grassroots hot line coordinator Jeff Maszal. "It's spurred a lot of kids calling, particularly in outlying areas like outer Carroll, Harford and Baltimore counties."

With the addition of the youth-crisis hot line, Grassroots, which has operated its own crisis hot line for 20 years, may handle as many as 30,000 calls by the end of fiscal year 1991. That volume would make Grassroots one of the largest counseling hot lines in the country, Maszal said.

Statistics for the first quarter show a 30 percent increase in hot line calls over last year. If that rate continues, calls will top 22,000.

State officials told Grassroots that once the hot line is established it will probably bring in 1,500 calls a month, Maszal said.

Those numbers indicate Grassroots' substantial growth over the past three years. "When I started three years ago, there were 14 paid staff and the budget was $400,000 for the entire agency," Maszal said.

Today, the paid staff numbers 35 and the Grassroots annual budget is $930,000. The hot line and walk-in counseling departments alone have a staff of 18 and a $350,000 budget.

The hot line, 1-800-422-0009, allows young people to call one toll-free number and be connected with a counselor at one of the six participating counseling centers throughout the state.

Grassroots counselors handle all callers form Howard, Carroll, Anne Arundel, Harford and Baltimore counties and Baltimore city.

Maszal describes the hot line's first three months of operation as "successful and increasing."

The hot line received 108 calls in August, 122 in September and 216 in October.

Teens contemplating suicide or expressing concern about a friend who has discussed suicide accounted for about 25 percent of the calls. The hot line also receives calls from youths worried about family problems, teen pregnancy, personal relationships and daily stresses.

Perhaps the most eye-opening result of the hot line has been the number of teens calling about physical and sexual abuse -- 23 since August, said Maszal.

"The toughest calls are not suicide calls," he said. "It's tough when you get a 13-year-old girl being molested at home."

In most cases the call to the hot line is the first time an abuse victim has spoken out about the abuse. Typically, the callers are reluctant to give out any information for fear of retaliation by the abuser.

Counselors try to reassure the young abuse victims by letting them know that what's happening to them is not their fault.

"We give them the feeling, 'It's OK to tell; what I was threatened with didn't happen when I called the hot line,' " Maszal said.

Counselors find out if the caller can talk to a family member, friend or school counselor about the abuse, and ask the caller if they want the situation reported to social services.

"If a kid is calling, they want it to stop, and in some way shape or form it's reported," Maszal said.

If the caller is in immediate danger the counselor will "intervene" by sending the police or an ambulance to the victim.

In the past month, the Department of Social Services has removed three abuse victims from their homes after being alerted to the situation by a hot line counselor. Taking this step can prevent an even greater tragedy later in the young victim's life.

"A lot of the women and men who call us later in life who are suicidal have come to that point because of abuse at age 12," Maszal said.

When dealing with callers to the youth-crisis hot line, counselors must always keep in mind that problems that are manageable at age 25 often seem insurmountable at age 15.

"If they're in a crisis, in emotional pain, it's probably the first pain they've ever experienced and they don't think it's going to get better," said Susan, a hot line counselor. "They think they're going to feel bad for the rest of their life."

Counselors try to make the caller understand that they know what the caller is going through, that they know what it's like to be dumped by a boyfriend or girlfriend at age 16, and it is possible to survive.

But mainly they listen.

"We don't talk anybody out of suicide; we listen them out of suicide," Maszal said.

Counselors ask a caller contemplating suicide how they plan to take their life, if the caller or another family member has attempted or committed suicide, and check for a history of psychiatric illness.

Based on this information, counselors can assess the validity of the suicide threat.

In many cases the caller just needs someone to calm them down and help them focus and think clearly. Sometimes counselors "contract" with the caller to call the hot line at a certain time or allow the counselor to call them back. The hot line also receives many calls from parents and school officials who notice behavior changes or dropping grades.

As a result of the center's involvement in the youth-crisis hot line, Grassroots has done workshops and presentations on teen suicide for the Howard and Baltimore county school systems, adolescent workers in the Baltimore county Department of Social Services and other organizations "People around the state are getting to know Grassroots," Maszal said.

"There is a need out there and we're going to attempt to address it."

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