What It’s Like to Work at a State Health Helpline During Coronavirus

Unlike the virus hotline, Michigan's warmline was been created to help residents who are struggling mentally or emotionally during the coronavirus pandemic. Here's what one staffer wants you to know about working the phones during this heavy time.

On April 13, Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced that our state was launching a warmline. Unlike the health hotline that relates to questions about the virus itself, the warmline is all about connection. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, where I’m the manager of the Office of Recovery-Oriented Systems of Care, organized it. On our first evening alone, we received 250 calls.

Our phones ring a lot

In the month that followed, the warmline has taken more than 3,100 calls. The line is staffed by Certified Peer Support Specialists, all who have a mental health history and have received treatment. All are trained and certified by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. The diversity of our team is extensive and includes people with experience of post-traumatic stress, military sexual trauma, human trafficking, LGBTQ, anxiety, depression, voice-hearers, dissociative issues, domestic violence, child sexual trauma, and more. We’re a diverse mix of races and genders and we work from home in both rural and urban areas. Find out how a therapist is staying sane during the coronavirus pandemic.

Most people just need someone to listen

We break down calls by the level of severity. Prior to the warmline being available, many of our callers may have dialed 911 or the state coronavirus hotline. In under-served, rural areas, we aim to help struggling individuals who may have otherwise turned to first responders—leaving the police, firefighters, and EMS workers to attend to current medical emergencies.

But other calls are more serious

About 82 percent of the calls we take are “Level 1,” or people who need someone to listen and provide support. About 17 percent are “Level 2,” those who want to talk and are in need of specific resources. That leaves 1 percent, which are “Level 3” crisis calls, related to suicide, abuse, serious mental health concerns, or substance use. Those who call us are struggling with fear of getting the virus and/or loneliness and isolation or would like a referral to other agencies like food banks, unemployment, and telemedicine. For the majority, we offer supportive listening while discussing wellness and coping skill strategies. Learn 16 unavoidable facts about domestic violence.

Many who call us have little support at home

A lack of social connectedness is a common thread. Understandably, if you’re spending a lot of time alone and aren’t talking to others about your feelings as much as you used to, you might experience more anxiety, fear, and severe isolation. The frequent callers are individuals with little or no support, who are confined at home or are unable to receive face-to-face services they have had in the past.

We helped one woman keep her pet…

One caller shared that she felt totally alone with her grief of possibly having to give up her pet because she could not afford to feed it. We listened to and validated her feelings of sadness, then shared resources to pet pantries. She may be able to keep her pet now—all because of someone answering her call on the warmline. Here’s how you can foster a pet during the pandemic—even as animal shelters are clearing out.

…and another caller talk through challenges related to addiction

“I just need someone to talk to about anything,” one caller said. We got into a conversation about sports and the weather, and then he started crying and admitted that he’s really struggling with his addictions while being isolated because of COVID-19. He knows all of his coping skills, yet is having a hard time putting them into practice. The thoughts are coming on stronger, he said, but he was not suicidal. He was just nervous he would “fail” again. So we directed him to a peer who could share their personal journey with addictions and how they overcame them—but that it’s still a daily struggle. After the peer told the caller, “It’s okay to fail because we learn and grow from it,” he stopped crying and said he felt a lot better.

Seniors who live alone are really struggling right now

An 87-year-old woman who lives alone reached out to the warmline. She shared that she lives with schizophrenia, and mentioned that she had gotten a call from the agency that she receives services from telling her that the staff member she has worked with had passed away. We listened to her grief of losing the person that was most helpful to her. Loss and loneliness are such a heartbreaking duo.

The connections formed on the warmline are quite remarkable

We received a call from a young man who wanted to make sure the warmline was “real.” He explained that he lives with anxiety and depression, and is an essential worker and “working a million hours.” He shared that he was really grateful to know this warmline was available to him and plans to call again when he is feeling overwhelmed. Before hanging up, another caller said that he felt so much better as a result, and would call back tomorrow to check in. Those connections are priceless. In other heartwarming news, check out 21 moving photos of kindness in the time of coronavirus.

For more info on everything to do with the virus, see our comprehensive guide.