Innovative Crisis Hotlines Serving Transgender Youth
When Greta Gustava Martela was transitioning, she discovered a terrible truth: 41 percent of transgender people report attempting suicide. Knowing that transgender individuals were nearly 10 times more likely to attempt suicide than their non-transgender peers, she saw an incredible need. In 2014, Martela launched Trans Lifeline, a crisis hotline dedicated to the transgender community and operated entirely by transgender individuals. It was the first of its kind in the United States.
“I wanted to create the opportunity that anyone, anywhere could reach a transgender person to talk about what was going on with them,” Martela said. Whether in a suicidal crisis or in need of someone to listen, she believes transgender individuals need a place to call where people will understand and listen to their needs without bias. A sense of community and acceptance is key to creating a resource for transgender individuals.
Welcoming Transgender Youth
“[Among] transgender youth, we see a pattern,” Martela said. “They call and say ‘I think I’m transgender.’ There is relief that they know how to describe their experience. [Later] they call back after telling their parents and say what a disaster it was.”
Often, she said, when transgender youth are trying to understand themselves, their identity becomes a “war zone,” and they leave home. As a former runaway and homeless teenager herself, Martela understands the risks and difficulty transitioning individuals face when attempting to get help while feeling afraid of being sent home.
Different Models, Same Goals
The Trevor Project provides 24-hour crisis services and suicide intervention for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth ages 13 to 24. Crisis counselors for the organization’s Trevor Lifeline, digital chat and text services are all trained to provide acceptance and listen without conditions. David W. Bond, LCSW and vice president of programs at the Trevor Project, said these are the biggest components of a transgender-competent crisis line.
“If someone is feeling suicidal and being rejected by their family, they want to know there is a place they can call where they will not be rejected,” said Bond. “If there is the simplest sense of rejection, it eliminates the helpfulness of the intervention.”
The Trevor Project wants counselors to understand the common struggles of the transgender community, and to build relationships with transgender individuals to give a personal context to the work they do. The counselors must be able to empathize with the callers, even if they do not share the same experience.
The Trans Lifeline uses a transgender peer-to-peer model of crisis and suicide intervention for individuals of all ages. According to Martela, it is important for transgender people to talk to each other because very often an individual may be geographically isolated or just doesn’t know another transgender individual.
Trans Lifeline does not ask for gender pronouns or even gender. “We just talk about things that are happening to [them],” she said. “We want to normalize and understand their experience.”
Bond adds that when a transgender youth is in crisis and has to explain basic definitions of their identity, it creates a barrier that may prevent them from getting the help they need. “At a simple level, youth may be used to feeling rejection, and seeking help from someone who promotes a feeling of unacceptance can trigger all the reasons they are calling in the first place.” He emphasized, for example, the difference between asking “what is gender queer” to “what does it mean, for you, to be gender queer?”
Martela and Bond highlighted the importance of providing a sense of safety, security, and comfort to transgender youth in crisis. Whether through transgender-informed trainings, education, and services, or transgender peer-to-peer services, both hotlines are creating a sense of community, acceptance, and help for transgender youth.
Who to Call for Help
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)
The Trevor Lifeline: 1-866-4-U-TREVOR (1-866-488-7386)
The Trans Lifeline: 1-877-565-8860