When most people think of “mental health,” they tend to think of therapy.
While therapy can be transformative, it isn’t the only option available to those seeking mental health support. Over the past few years there has been a big increase in other kinds of supports, each with their own strengths, costs, and approaches.
In our Beyond Therapy series, we’ll give you an overview of some of the most common and effective options other than therapy, how to figure out if they fit your needs, and where to look when you are ready for help.
For this post, we sat down with Dr. Kimberly Goodman, PhD, Director of Research and Evaluation at RAINN, to learn more about mental health hotlines. RAINN offers hotline services for sexual assault survivors, and Dr. Goodman focuses on evaluating and improving these services.
If you are in crisis right now, read our post What to do in a Mental Health Crisis for immediate steps you can take to keep yourself safe.
What are mental health hotlines?
Hotlines are support services that are typically available by phone, text, or online chat to help people who are in crisis or need immediate support. “They offer safe spaces to air your concerns,” said Dr. Goodman. “They also help you problem solve, safety plan, and figure out how to get longer-term support from specialized service providers.”
Most hotlines are offered by non-profit organizations focused on helping people with specific concerns or experiences such as suicidal ideation, domestic violence, or LGBTQ+ discrimination. The counselor you talk, text, or chat with will usually be a trained volunteer who is committed to helping people.
From Dr. Goodman’s perspective, one of the best features of hotlines is that they “provide non-judgmental support in a space where you can say anything about what you’re dealing with.” For people with stigmatized identities and experiences, this non-judgmental space may be hard to find in daily life.
What are the pros and cons of using mental health hotlines?
Hotlines have many benefits, including that they are free and easy to use. In addition, you don’t have to worry about transportation. Many hotlines are available 24/7 so that you can use them right when you need them.
Further, you can contact hotlines as many times as you want. However, “just know that hotlines are not intended for long-term help. If you call again, you can’t pick up where you left off on the last call because you’ll be talking to a new person,” said Dr. Goodman.
Another benefit of hotlines is that they are anonymous. “Anonymity can be very important for people who are disclosing something very personal for the first time,” said Dr. Goodman. Hotlines also let users have full control over what they talk about. If you don’t want to talk about something, you don’t have to. You decide what information about yourself you want to share.
There are some exceptions to what information can stay private once you share it. For example, hotlines have policies on how to support you if you communicate that you are at serious risk of harming yourself or someone else.
In certain situations, the counselor may be required to file a report or send for “active rescue” (i.e., sending an ambulance or police officer to your location). When child abuse is discussed, this may also require that the counselor file a report. In general, this reporting happens when you provide identifying information such as your name or location.
If confidentiality is a concern for you, look at the hotline’s terms of service. If these are difficult to understand, you can ask the counselor for more information. For example, Dr. Goodman recommends asking, “Can you explain how this hotline works? I want to be sure this conversation is confidential. Are there instances where you can track my information like my phone number, IP address, or physical address?” The counselor you are speaking with is required to answer these questions honestly.
If you are still feeling nervous to contact a hotline, consider what mode of communication makes you feel the most safe. For example, you can use an online chat service if you want to conceal your voice or make sure people you live with can’t hear what you’re saying. Dr. Goodman also recommends knowing how to protect your privacy at home. You may consider clearing your search history or not using shared electronic devices (e.g., phones) when contacting a hotline.
How do hotlines differ from other types of support?
Hotlines are appropriate for when you need help right away. The counselor you communicate with is not a licensed mental health professional. This means that they are not trained in treating specific problems (e.g., depression, trauma). In addition, these counselors cannot offer continuity of care because you only communicate with them one time.
If you are looking for this kind of support, explore our resources (Therapy Financial Aid 101, How Do I Know if I Need Therapy?, Finding the Right Therapist guides, How to Schedule a Therapy Appointment) to make the process of finding a therapist easier. If you end up on a waitlist for therapy, you can support your mental health in the meantime by using hotlines, mHealth apps, and support groups.
The more tools you have to support your mental health, the better. Hotlines can be one of the many ways you take care of your mental health. For example, even if you’re already in therapy, your therapist may suggest that you contact a hotline in between sessions if you are in crisis.
How can I find the right mental health hotline for me?
Below is a list of free national hotlines that help people with a range of concerns and experiences.
- Crisis Text Line
- Disaster Distress Helpline
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- NAMI HelpLine & Crisis Text Line
Sexual Assault / Domestic Violence
- Darkness to Light Helpline
- Department of Defense Safe Helpline
- National Domestic Violence Hotline
- National Sexual Assault Hotline
- StrongHearts Native HelpLine
- The Deaf Hotline
Child Abuse / Neglect
- Desi LGBTQ+ Helpline For South Asians
- LGBT National Senior Hotline
- LGBT National Youth Talkline
- SAGE National LGBT Elder Hotline
- The Network/La Red Hotline
- Trans Lifeline Hotline
- TrevorLifeline, TrevorChat, & TrevorText
Race Related Stress
Military / Veterans
Substance Use / Addiction
Parenting / Postpartum Mental Health
If hotlines sound like the right mental health support for you, explore Therapy4thePeople’s directory, which includes regional and national hotlines. Our directory provides information about the hotline’s service hours and whether it is designed to help someone with your experience, identity, or background.