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Help Line Takes to the Road to Spread Word : Service Is Run by and for Teens

March 20, 1986|DONNE DAVIS | Davis is an Arcadia free-lance writer.

The volunteers at Teen Line, a telephone help line operating out of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, believe they offer a valuable service and want the word spread to other teens. So, twice a month, they take their show on the road.

Last week, volunteers Sharon Freed, 17, and Niloo Savis, 16, spoke to sophomores in Karen Symme's health class at Cleveland High School in Reseda. Cheryl Teplinsky, Teen Line's outreach coordinator, accompanied the two volunteers and posed the first question.

"When you've got a problem, how many of you dial 411 and ask for the number of your nearest mental health agency?" asked Teplinsky, a licensed clinical social worker.

The question drew a laugh from the class.

"Well then, who do you go to?" she continued. "Your teachers? Your parents?"

"Sometimes they're the problem," a student shouted from the back row.

Another student offered a different answer.

"Friends," he said.

"Right," Teplinsky said. "You go to your friends because they understand you."

A perfect lead in to Freed and Savis.

"Teen Line's for teens and it's run by teens," explained Freed, a senior at Birmingham High School in Van Nuys. "No problem is too big or too small. We respect all calls, as long as they're authentic."

Freed and Savis, a junior at Beverly Hills High School, are two of the 65 teen-agers from 15 to 18 who answer calls every evening from 6 to 10 p.m. at Cedars-Sinai. The medical center donates an office and phones. The Los Angeles Unified School District started the outreach program two years ago to tell students what Teen Line can offer.

"Young people in high school are learning how to adjust to life," said Marilyn Bush, community liaison in the district's senior high division.

"If they're experiencing conflicts that prevent them from performing at school, their attendance is affected," Bush said.

Teen Line began as a service program of the Center for the Study of Young People in Groups, an affiliate of the department of psychiatry at Cedars-Sinai. It was founded on the belief that teen-agers turn to peers first when problems arise.

More than 30,000 calls have been logged since Teen Line phones first began ringing in April, 1981. The calls have included suicide threats, drug abuse appeals and a full range of emotional issues. Most calls deal with personal relationships.

Although the line is not considered a crisis intervention service, volunteers will refer callers to community agencies, such as Planned Parenthood, Alcoholics Anonymous, Rape Hotline and the Gay and Lesbian Community Services.

"Teen-agers really need somebody to give a damn--to listen," said Elaine Leader, Ph.D., founder and director of Teen Line and a therapist in private practice. "They have a lot of things that are troubling them, and I don't think our society provides for them."

Dr. Walter E. Brackelmanns, associate clinical professor of psychology at UCLA, agrees.

"We're missing the capacity to connect in our society," said Brackelmanns. "If you can train people to listen, it can be enormously helpful. Peer counseling can be the highest form of expressing caring under the right circumstances."

He cautions, however, that the phone listener is at a disadvantage since 70% of communication is nonverbal. To avoid dangers, a help line should be carefully structured and monitored, Brackelmanns said.

Structure and supervision are the foundation of Teen Line. The eight-week training program was developed by Pat Wisne, Ph.D., a therapist in private practice, who has been the training coordinator since Teen Line was founded.

"We're not training our volunteers to be counselors," said Wisne. "We're training them to be listeners who can guide callers to help themselves."

The rigorous selection process begins with a five-page application. Applicants are invited to two interviews before they can begin the training program.

"We look for teens who have a strong self-awareness, but not a set view of the world," said Wisne. "They also need to be able to look at their own mistakes and learn from them without losing their self-esteem. We don't expect people to be free of problems, but they have to know how to cope with them or be able to get help."

Once accepted into the training program, volunteers attend four-hour sessions twice a week. There they observe trained volunteers, learning communication skills, effective listening techniques and gaining knowledge about topics such as human sexuality, addiction, crisis intervention, suicide prevention and child abuse.

"We spend eight weeks learning active listening and how to reflect feelings, because a lot of times a caller may not know why he's calling," Savis said. "We don't tell you how to solve your problems, but we do listen ."

Volunteers also must be able to set aside their own feelings, said Wisne, and sense what others are going through. As they begin to understand the feelings of others, volunteers learn about themselves.

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