A Week In The Life Of A Call Center Agent At The Suicide Hotline

May 12, 2020

“A Week In The Life” is a weekly Zikoko series that explores the working-class struggles of Nigerians. It captures the very spirit of what it means to hustle in Nigeria and puts you in the shoes of the subject for a week.


Today’s subject is **Mark, a psychologist who is a call center agent at the suicide hotline. He walks us through his battle with faith, the need to help people, and the challenges that come with his job.

MONDAY:

I wake up early no matter what because I don’t sleep for long. Today, I wake up by 6 am because I was up reading till 2:30 am. 

The first thing I do when I wake up is to check the morning news on my Chrome browser. I do this for an hour because by 7 am, messages from work start to come in. I am the head of the counselling department and this means that junior counsellors who have issues with their clients come to me for help.

I man the hotline and usually, calls start to come in by this time. To ensure the efficiency of the hotline, I weigh the importance of each call and act appropriately. That is, if a caller just needs someone to talk to, I divert them from the hotline to a nearby counsellor so as to free up the hotline. However, if the caller sounds panicky and desperate, I attend to them because it is an emergency and every second counts.

Whenever a call comes in, I gauge the person’s tone, accent, and diction and tailor myself to the person. This is to prevent miscommunication. It’s important for the caller at the other end to feel that they are talking to someone who understands them. So, depending on who’s calling, I speak either English, Pidgin, or my tiny Yoruba.

Today is a slow day. I eat breakfast by 11 am, I have my bath by noon. I spend the rest of the day browsing through Psychology Today and Medscape.

TUESDAY:

I don’t sleep much at night because the majority of calls come in at night and early in the morning. It helps that I am not a deep sleeper so even if I doze off, I am up once the hotline starts to ring.

Today, an elderly woman called crying about her daughter who was being violent. She was asked to run a couple of tests but she couldn’t afford it and coupled with the lockdown, she had no hope of raising the money. I had to comfort her over the tears and give her hope that it would be fine. That’s all I could do because I couldn’t help financially. After the call, I felt really broken because I just gave her temporary relief that wasn’t going to solve anything. The most annoying part of this job for me is the feeling of helplessness. 

Helping people over the phone is tricky. One wrong tone or an out of place statement can either make or break a caller. So, I have to be patronising yet firm. For example, many people call crying and one thing you must never do is tell them to calm down. This is because it invalidates their feelings and makes them feel like a cry baby. So, I tell them it’s okay to cry and re-assure them that I am here for them. I keep repeating that I am there for them so that as they are crying, my voice keeps ringing to them. Eventually, this helps calm them down. Then, I carefully ask for specifics and try to narrow down the problem. Some of these calls last for an hour and I have to be non-judgemental and actively listen. 

After doing all of this, it saddens me when I can’t proffer a lasting solution to someone’s problem.

I am in a low mood so I distract myself with Youtube. I watch the Voice which is one of my favourite shows. There’s a rendition of Whitney Houston’s ‘I have nothing’ by one the contestants and that makes it easy to forget my troubles. 

WEDNESDAY:

Working this job has limited the number of people I talk to. My colleagues are my only friends because they are the only ones I can rant to about the job. These cases are confidential and that means I can’t discuss them with people outside of work, even if the person is my father. It’s my colleagues I rant to, cry to, and are there. I have over 300 unreplied messages on Whatsapp because I am usually tired to start texting after work.

I don’t have to worry about a significant other because I am not in a relationship. I have never been in a relationship because I don’t have time and there are so many time wasters out there. See, I don’t like stress. 

The only downside is that on days like today, where I feel very very lonely after talking to a lot of people on the phone, I have no one to cuddle. I just want to cuddle and not have to say anything or even rant. The loneliness brings on a  bout of sadness.

I shrug it off by going to sleep. Sleep always refreshes me and chases the loneliness away.

THURSDAY:

As a hotline handler, I respond to a variety of calls. Panic attacks, anxiety attacks, suicide. Since the lockdown started, the majority of calls I have gotten are panic attack related and they happen in the middle of the night. In the past, I used to get a rough estimate of 50 calls in a month, but these days, I have been getting up to 150 calls. 9 out of 10 people who call are women because men don’t talk about their issues or they drown them with unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Early this morning, a lady called that she was having panic attacks. She was scared for her family because she’s far away from them and even with the lockdown, the number of reported cases keeps increasing. Another person called that the death rate has gone up so much that she can’t step out of the house anymore. She doesn’t know what to do and she’s panicking. Someone else called that they are lonely and the loneliness is affecting their psyche and making it hard to breathe. I had to reassure all of them that it would be fine.

In between all of these, someone woke me up with a call on the hotline telling me that their Facebook account was hacked and they needed my help. I was shocked because I am used to people at the other end of the line crying or struggling to breathe. Being asked to help with a hacked Facebook account in the middle of the night is new to me. 

These calls sometimes make me very sad. I have considered handing over the hotline because I keep wondering why people are suffering. My conclusion is that people suffer because of the actions of other people and that makes me sad. Will the world ever be better? It’s hard to believe in God when I have front row seats to human suffering.

These thoughts are making me sad and I can feel an oncoming panic attack. I request for a counsellor to talk to and I call and rant away my feelings.

FRIDAY:

I wish I was on the frontline supporting. It’s not like I don’t enjoy helping through the hotline, I just feel that there’s more I should be doing to help. The guys at the front need all the help they can get. I am fueled by the need to help people. If I wasn’t a psychologist, I would have been a nurse.

I have always been drawn to helping people since I was young. My earliest memory is of secondary school while I was in the band. There was this kid in the orchestra that was doing very poorly so he got picked on a lot. He was always crying, so one day, I went over to comfort him and promised to help him. Then, I was a flutist and he was a violinist. I went out of my way to teach him how to play and practised with him. Even though he was part of the team, he wasn’t allowed to play in concerts because of how bad he was. 

I remember one day as we were packing up after a concert and he started to play. The other members were shocked about how much he had improved and even asked how he got so good. I remember him laughing shyly and just looking at me. Since then, I knew I had to keep helping people.

As I am not on the frontline helping people, I am helping as much I can from the hotline. I plan to read the Alex Cross series by James Patterson today. 

It’s Friday, please, let me unwind small. 

SATURDAY:

The greatest skill you can have as an emergency hotline handler is the ability to separate personal life from work. Especially in this work that is the boundary between life and death. Maybe because I have mastered this, I don’t hesitate to blast rude customer service agents when I am on the other end. I believe that if I can do my own job without being sour, other professionals should be able to do theirs too.

Today, I am conducting interviews for new counsellors to support our efforts. Our recruitment process is very intense and we are not sorry about it. There is the interview phase where only 30% make it, then, a training phase where we cut them down again. Finally, we have the assessment phase which is the interview phase raised to the power of 5. 

You can be disqualified for just uttering the wrong statement or not being knowledgeable enough on how to handle or refer cases.

I always tell the new recruits, the conversation is over the phone so that means you have to be very careful. You have to be empathetic, you don’t utter careless statements, you don’t dismiss and you don’t judge. You listen and reassure and try to find common ground. Then finally, you refer them as appropriate.

I enjoy teaching and seeing others gain knowledge, It makes me feel helpful.

The only thing I love more than helping people is eating junk food. After the interviews are over, I look forward to ending the day with a hot wrap of shawarma or meat pie. Or both. It all depends on how I feel at the end of the sessions. 

SUNDAY:

Before the pandemic started, I stopped attending church. So, it makes no difference whether there is lockdown or not. I am staying put on my bed.

I have so many questions that religion hasn’t been able to answer satisfactorily. I am sick and tired of people telling me I can’t understand the things of the spirit with the carnal mind. It just feels like the church is a scam because, from my work, I have a lot of questions that need answers. Why are we here? Why are people suffering? How were we created? 

As a science student who understands genotype and phenotype, I know all of us can’t have these varied genes if God created only Adam and Eve. That’s such a big question that needs an answer. Okay, so God destroyed the entire race and there’s just Noah and his ark. So, one family gave birth to all the races? The stories just don’t add up for me. 

Also, there was so much politics at play with people playing power games in the church. I just got tired of the lies, politics, sabotage and I quit. 

I spend the rest of my day thinking about a future where I have better answers and more stability. Marriage is not in my plan or anything. I want to have children but only because I love taking care of people. I will adopt them though.

I want to be a professor, travel the world while living in Nigeria. I also want to start African psychology because a lot of our treatment for mental illness is rooted in Western treatments. Imagine telling someone from Mushin to do Yoga? I want to develop treatment plans specific to Africa and teach them at various universities.

At the end of the day, when my time is up, I want to be remembered as an amazing teacher who loved to help people.


This story was edited for clarity. Some details have been changed to protect the identity of the subject.

Check back every Tuesday by 9 am for more “A Week In The Life Of” goodness, and if you would like to be featured or you know anyone who fits the profile, don’t hesitate to reach out. Reach out to me: hassan@bigcabal.com if you want to be featured on this series.

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