By Whitney Stefko, 16, James Monroe HS
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They sat like old friends inside the room marked private on the second floor of the Thalians Mental Health Building at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Some made chit-chat about shopping. Others flipped through magazines. They passed around a menu from a local Chinese joint and collected money for dinner. It all seemed so casual and relaxed.

But I knew that at any second, anything could happen. After all, this was Teen Line, a teen-to-teen hotline that services ages 13-19 and is open from 6 to 10 p.m. every day.

Here, four to six teen volunteers, known as listeners, answer phones. They help callers interpret their concerns, tell them about options and give them referrals to community resources. Two adult mental health specialists supervise the teen listeners, offer support and are ready to step in if a call requires emergency services. They also debrief the listeners and make sure nobody goes home feeling upset about a call, said Cheryl Karp, Teen Line training coordinator.

It was all just so different than what I expected. Laura, 16, sat underneath a blanket on a couch next to listener-in-training, Nicole, 16. Across the room, Teri, 18, Sarah and Micah, 16, read books. They all sat around for 45 minutes and waited for the phones to ring. Little conversations were going on between them.

I expected the phones to be ringing off the hook. At the same time, I wondered, "Why were these listeners so calm? Didn’t they realize that anything could happen?" If I worked there, I’d be on the edge of my seat waiting for the next call. The fact that you’re affecting peoples’ lives is a huge responsibility and obligation. I wondered how these listeners knew what to say.

According to the Web site, listeners complete a 13-week, 60-hour training program that emphasizes listening and communication techniques. Intervention, family life, cultural diversity, values, sex, addictions, abuse, self-destruction and life threatening behaviors are discussed. Nearly 65 percent of the calls are from females and males make up the other 35 percent.

I learned a lot. The listeners don’t offer therapy, just a helpful ear. I think that’s a hard quality to learn, because as humans you just want to shout out your opinion, but here you shut up and listen to others

‘Hello, Teen Line’

At 7:45 p.m. the first call of the night came though. Sarah grabbed the phone. "Hello, Teen Line," she said. Seconds afterward, a second and third call came in. Now things were hopping! The room became serious. It was no longer friends hanging out. It became the helpline that I was waiting for.

Teri, a Teen Line listener for nearly three years, had an interesting call. The caller began by asking for a referral number for alcoholics. Teri gave her the information, but didn’t let the conversation end there. She asked what the number was going to be used for. Eventually the teen confessed that her mother was an alcoholic. Teri listened carefully and offered support. They talked for more than 10 minutes and then hung up.

That’s how most of the calls are supposed to work. Someone calls in and talks their problems out. Hopefully the callers understand their options by the time they hang up.

But it’s not always that easy.

Laura handled a tricky phone call from a young woman addicted to cocaine and sex. The caller said she was into pornography, prostitution and drank the fluid from condoms used when she had sex. At the same time, the caller defended herself by claiming to be protected. An adult therapist heard this and passed a note to Laura saying that any exchange of bodily fluids is dangerous. Laura repeated that information to the caller.

Then the caller said she hoped to be a porn star one day and wondered if Laura thought she was awful.

"Don’t be embarrassed," Laura said. "I think it’s important that you’re reaching out. I think a lot of you for doing that."

Laura read 1-800 numbers to the caller for a cocaine hotline and another one for sex addicts. A whole bunch of 1-800 numbers were plastered along the walls in print large enough to read from across the room.

Laura asked the troubled caller to repeat the phone numbers to her. Suddenly, the caller hung up. Laura’s face dropped.

"That was a really heavy call," Laura said as she took a deep breath and exhaled. "She was addicted to drugs and sex and wasn’t sure if she was doing one for the other."

Everyone in the room listened to Laura and praised her for handling such a difficult call. Laura only asked the caller to repeat the phone numbers to make sure she had them, not to challenge her.
Laura looked concerned and a little defeated. "I just hope she gets some help," Laura said. "That was my first drug call, I usually get suicide calls."

This was more along the lines of what I expected to see. Maybe not quite that heavy. I was speechless and amazed at how well Laura handled it all. I could see how those 13 weeks of training paid off.

It took a couple of minutes for the room to wind down and go back to normal. The call had shaken everyone up. The therapists encouraged talking about the call and let Laura know she did the best she could.

Before my visit, I hadn’t even heard of Teen Line. Neither had my friends. But after that night there, I’ll never be able to forget it. At first, I thought it would be all calls about suicide, like what you see in the movies. But I don’t think it’s just a hotline used for people on the brink of committing suicide. It’s there for other reasons like dating troubles and problems with parents. If I can offer advice for anyone out there about Teen Line, it’s this: Don’t be afraid to call. It’s free and I think the knowledge you’ll receive is priceless.

If you live in Los Angeles, need some help and want to call Teen Line, the phone number is (310) 855-HOPE from 6-10 p.m. Collect phone calls are also accepted. Or call 1-(800)-TLC-TEEN.

Teen Line has an outreach program to high schools to educate the community on issues such as growing up gay, having gay parents or siblings, dealing with teasing, harrassment and homophobia. If you want a presentation or workshop at your school, give them a call at (310) 423-3401.