Jaunimo Linija is the most well-known suicide hotline in Lithuania. Julija Staskovskaja is one of the volunteers behind the line who is ready to help others, but it is not without consequences for herself.
Jaunimo Linija is the most well-known suicide hotline in Lithuania. Julija Staskovskaja is one of the volunteers behind the line who is ready to help others, but it is not without consequences for herself. With the suicide rate in Lithuania at 47.1 per 100,000 habitants (896 Lithuanians took their lives in 2015), the Baltic country tops the EU suicide ranking and is among the world’s top ten countries in the notoriety (http://www.who.int/ gho/mental_health/suicide_rates/en/). Against the backdrop, the hotline turns out to be the saviour for many from taking the last step to death.
“When a person calls, the feeling is like nothing else exists around me. My voice gets higher and my body gets tenser. I am dealing with a problem at the moment, and I am not thinking about anything else. It's just between me and that person,” says Julija Staskovskaja.
As the phone rings, you never know who will be calling. Is it a kid who is just playing? A person with relationship problems who needs someone to talk to? Or is it a person, who stands on the brink, ready to end their own life?
“At that moment I am nervous, I am worried about who it is now. I want to be useful, I want to help someone.”
The room is open and bright. It’s all quiet at the moment. Situated in the room are small glass offices and a closed white door. Behind that door sit the volunteers that take in calls that have the power to save lives. This is no ordinary office. This is Jaunimo Linija, a suicide hotline.
From victim to volunteer
Julija Staskovskaja is one of over 200 volunteers who work behind the phones for Jaunimo Linija, Lithuania’s longest running emotional support hotline, founded in 1991. Self-harm and suicidal thoughts are one of the most common reasons for people contacting the hotline, with 7,396 calls, emails and chat conversations received in the last year on this topic.
Around 900 Lithuanians die as a result of suicide per year. While Jaunimo Linija translates to ‘Youth Line,’ around 9 per cent of received calls are from the elderly who also require anonymous emotional support. Still, the youth take advantage of the hotline with 16 to 20 year olds making up the majority of callers.
“I can sympathise with someone that is calling. I can feel what they are feeling,” says Staskovskaja.
For Staskovskaja, this isn’t just because she is a self-confessed caring person or that her friends call her ‘mummy.’ She has her own personal connections that eventually lead her to Jaunimo Linija.
Her father died from suicide in 2006 and the loss threw her into a depression. His death later helped her to have a greater understanding about suicide from both sides of the line.
“I went to therapy and took drugs to deal with my depression after the suicide of my father. I read a lot of books and really started to invest in understanding the phenomena of suicide.”
But the real prompt for Staskovskaja eventually becoming a volunteer was a more recent event that saw her partaking in essentially the same role as she does now on the hotline. This time, with a personal friend.
“My friend sent me a message which said, “I am sorry Julija, I have done a stupid thing.”
Staskovskaja knew immediately this was related to suicide.
“I called him and we talked for hours. I called an ambulance and I even tried to call Jaunimo Linija, but couldn’t, because the lines were busy.”
Staskovskaja’s friend survived and Jaunimo Linija received a new volunteer.
“After I went to sleep and woke up, I thought, “I am not angry, it doesn’t hurt”. Now I feel like I can go and volunteer because they really need people.”
No professional qualifications or degree is needed for someone like Staskovskaja to become a volunteer. The main requisite is that a volunteer synchronizes with the three core values of Jaunimo Linija: equality, empathy and responsibility.
“It's not a secret that you can get touched by suicide so closely. I was full of knowledge that I wanted to share and when I finally got to, it was by me listening,” says Staskovskaja.
Jaunimo Linija is the most popular hotline in Lithuania and is facing the challenge of answering all the calls. In 2012, they were only able to pick up 1 in every 20 calls. Today, they are able to pick up 1 in every 3 calls they receive, as they now have more phone lines, volunteers and support from the government.
Working at a suicide hotline can be a stressful task, and Julia Staskovskaja is by no means immune to the emotional impact the calls can have. She claims it is important to keep a distance from the callers to protect themselves. As the calls are anonymous, the volunteers are unable to know if the person they talked with has died from suicide.
“I had a call once where I knew a lot about the person. It was a really high suicide risk. I googled after to see if he had suicided. From that day, I decided not to google anymore,” says Staskovskaja, not wanting to become too attached to the individuals she talks to.
The volunteers are always allowed to pull out of a call if they get too affected by it. They are also encouraged to talk with other volunteers or professionals about their calls. This is something that Staskovskaja didn’t take advantage of.
“There was a time for five weeks that every Monday I would get a call from someone who was attempting suicide. After that, I got panic attacks. I wasn’t using all the services that Jaunimo Linija was offering me. I thought I could handle it.”
The head of the hotline asked Julia Staskovskaja to talk with their support, but she felt she needed to take care of it on her own.
“I went to drive, and the feeling was like I couldn’t control anything. I pulled over and I called them,” recalls Staskovskaja.
“Now it has become like a tradition to call in and say, ‘I am ok’ or ‘I am not ok, can we talk?’”
A trash bin for emotions
In the meeting room, the wall is covered by photos of volunteers throughout the years. There is a strong community amongst them. Julija Staskovskaja even refers to them as ‘her little family’. She talks passionately and with a smile about the hotline and the community. She notes the emotional impact the phone calls have had on her own life.
“Some of the experiences might stay with me for years. If we were robots, then maybe we would be able to forget, but when you are a person, it is just impossible.”
“Whatever Jaunimo Linija does to help us after volunteering sessions, it is impossible to fully erase. We hear stories you would never hear anywhere else.”
For all the hardships and personal struggles that come with working as a volunteer at a suicide hotline, Staskovskaja is grateful for the impact she can have in combatting Lithuania’s high suicide rate.
“When I sit in my car going home at night, I think about what a lucky life I have. How happy I am.”
The volunteers stay usually for about two years, but Staskovskaja has passed this mark and shows no signs of slowing down. She now works as a trainer for incoming volunteers, passing on to them the knowledge, skills and life lessons she has learnt through her own experiences and through listening to others.
“In my family, there were issues about talking, listening to each other, alcohol and similar things. I think by being here and listening, and by being a trash bin for people's emotions, I can help.”
“There was a time for five weeks that every Monday I would get a call from someone attempting suicide. After that I got panic attacks. I wasn’t using all the services that Jaunimo Linija was offering me. I thought I could ” handle it.
Julia Staskovskaja doesn’t mind when kids prank call Jaunimo Linija.when talking with the kids, it often turns out that they actually have problems themselves that they will open up about.