Hot lines: electronic counselors

More and more people are reaching for the telephone for help these days. Hot lines for every problem from child abuse to alcoholism are available 24 hours a day to see them through crises.

These electronic counseling services are available in growing numbers throughout the country. In New York City there are so many that the telephone company is starting a special information number just for hot lines.

Drug hot lines came in vogue during the late '60s and early '70s, often organized by churches or social-service agencies. The services gradually diversified to become general crisis lines, and new kinds of hot lines appeared to meet other problems, such as child abuse or alcoholism.

No one is sure of the success of the hot lines, since there is no tracking of the anonymous callers. But hot-line workers say the idea works. Sarah Belcher directs a parental-stress line in Boston, which has had more than 2,000 calls in seven months. There have been 800 repeat calls.

Ms. Belcher thinks that is a good sign that parents recognize when they are angry and call rather than take their feelings out on their children. One mother called to say she had locked her daughter in the bedroom so that she couldn't hurt her. She decided to talk to someone about the problem.

"It's impossible to think logically when you are upset," Ms. Belcher says.

But even those who champion the hot lines find that there are bugs as well as advantages to the system.

Technology of today, including television and computers, has isolated people, and that's why the use of hot lines has grown, says Miriam Braverman, associate professor at the Columbia University school of library sciences in New York. Dr. Braverman, who specializes in information and referral systems, points out that the new technology has also given people a way to seek help without exposing themselves.

"Alienation and isolation create a need to reach out for help," she says.

Arthur T. Hilson, director of a child-abuse hot line in Cambridge, Mass., cites the ease and nonthreatening nature of hot lines as reasons for their growth.

"It's easy to ask for help for a flat tire, but not for something that involves your personality or life," he says. "It is very embarrassing and humiliating to admit those problems when dealing with a person."

Mr. Hilson does not think hot lines are supplanting the traditional support people receive from their immediate family.

"The nuclear family has always been the primary mode of support, and it still is," he says. "But the extended family [parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles] is not as supportive. You may live in Boston and your mother in Peoria, Illinois. They are not always there when needed."

At the same time, Mr. Hilson says, most hot lines address problems that have traditionally not been discussed with the family, such as child abuse or violence against a spouse.

Larry Brown of the American Humane Association in Denver worries about the impersonality of some statewide lines.

"The problem with the statewide lines is that they remove the responsibility from communities to the state," he says. "The whole concept of central registry and the hot lines is a machine-oriented fad answer to problem that should be dealth with person to person."

Mr. Brown advocates local community hot lines instead.The use of telephones as a place to turn when troubled can be a good and workable idea, he says. "These are lifelines to people who need help and need it immediately. It is a helpful response from the community, which has got to find ways to be responsive."

Hot lines have come under some criticism because they are run by volunteers who have little experience in social work other than the training sessions given by the organizers. When a person calls up threatening suicide, the hot-line worker is under extreme pressure, and some hot-line directors question whether a volunteer will say the right thing. Others defend the use of volunteers.

"Volunteers under supervision can help people who call up perplexed and troubled," says Mr. Brown. "The volunteers should be trained to listen, talk, and refer callers to help."

Hot lines could also keep a person a step away from actually facing a problem. Mr. Hilson is quick to say that hot lines are not intended to be long-range treatment. He does not encourage callers to call for every problem.

"We are here for crises," he says. "But we hope callers will realize they can ask for help, and it is not a weakness, but a strength."

Nuisance calls are also a problem for hot lines. Obscene phone callers apparently believe they have a captive audience in hot lines. And other callers use the lines to vent their steam about petty problems. One woman called a Massachusetts line for child-abuse reports to say her neighbors wer mistreating their child. A little questioning revealed her real gripe was that the child had run over her flowers with his bike.

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