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Teenagers Lend an Ear to Troubled Peers

Phone line offers young people counseling and understanding.

November 12, 2001|KAREN ALEXANDER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Jessie Funes was 14, she told her mother she was gay. Her mother told her to stay away from her two little sisters. When she told a friend she didn't want to go to the homecoming dance with a boy, word spread, and her classmates began throwing food and rocks at her.

When she told her guidance counselor about the harassment, "She said, 'That's your personal stuff. I'm here to talk to you about college,"' Funes says. "The bottom line from her was you brought that upon yourself. It left me in shock, thinking there is no one I can go to with this. I kept it inside."

That's when the cutting started. Funes first cut her legs. "I felt so good seeing what came out of me, the blood," she says now, some five years later. "It was relieving ... seeing the pain." After her mother noticed the scars, Funes continued in less conspicuous areas, along her bikini line, behind her knees and on her toes. "There was so much guilt flowing through me. That was the only way to let it out."

By the time she was almost 16, she wanted only to die. She thought of throwing herself in front of a bus, jumping off the ledge of her grandmother's Sunset Boulevard house. Finally, she borrowed a gun from a friend and wrote a suicide note. But as she prepared to kill herself, her eyes lit upon a booklet she had received at school. She put down the gun and picked up the phone.

The pamphlet was from Teen Line, a confidential phone help line staffed by trained teenage counselors at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. For 20 years, when a teenager has needed someone to talk to, Teen Line has answered the call. Young people call Teen Line about every manner of angst, from middle-school crushes to physical and sexual abuse, eating disorders, self-mutilation, depression, rape and suicide. These days, the calls are also about terrorism and fear. Young men are phoning to air their anxieties about getting drafted into war.

Although there are always adult mental health professionals on hand to supervise the listeners, the hotline works precisely because it operates away from the judgmental realm of adult authority. Callers know they are talking to their peers, and listeners say they often identify deeply with the callers as well.

"A lot of times they're going through the same things you are, and you just get it," says listener Cory Gluck, 17, a senior at Windward School who lives in Brentwood.

Teen Line's executive director, Dr. Elaine Leader, who was instrumental in creating the program two decades ago, says teens are a natural resource for each other. Having led an adolescent therapy group at Cedars-Sinai since 1972, she says, "I began to realize that they really take in from their peers more than they do from adults."

A 74-year-old great-grandmother, the English-born Leader hears the things teenagers would never dream of telling their parents. She says she marvels at the honesty of the teens she works with. "They're in stages of development where they're in flux," she says. "They are developing a sense of themselves, and they try out different roles and different modes of behavior."

On a recent Wednesday night at Teen Line, three teen listeners and a couple of trainees are sprawled out on sofas doing homework and eating Chinese food. One listener-in-training is engaged in a mock phone call with her supervisor, part of the preparation required before the teens are allowed to answer calls.

When the phone rings, the chatter stops. "Please let it be a hang-up," says Rebecca Rosoff, 16, only half jokingly before the Brentwood School senior reaches for the phone. The caller is looking for a way to help a friend who recently lost her mother and is feeling suicidal.

Rebecca patiently probes for clues about the caller's concerns. "I'm going to give you some other numbers where your friend can go for help," she says, passing along contacts for a suicide hotline and a counseling center. "I have faith that you're going to be a good friend and help her through this. It's really good of you that you called."

Most of the calls are not life-threatening, but even so, the work can put great emotional pressure on the listeners. On a Sunday night in September, a 14-year-old boy in San Diego called to say he'd been expelled, and he wanted revenge on the girl who had reported his misbehavior. He told the Teen Line listener that he was going to bomb the girl's high school. "He wanted the notoriety; he wanted the limelight," Leader says.

The Teen Line volunteer remained on the phone with him while her supervisor notified authorities in San Diego. The listener was still speaking to the boy when help arrived at his door. He was hospitalized for psychiatric care. That case is a rarity, though. Usually the listeners have no idea what happens to their callers after they hang up.

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