By Dr. Erica Hua Fletcher
Zorich Fellow in Mental Health Policy
Who do you call when you are having a bad day? For many people living in the U.S., the answer is no one. A 2006 study published in the American Sociological Review found that most Americans only have one close friend. What is more, the average American works longer hours and has less leisure time than prior generations, making it difficult to spend quality time with our loved ones.
One small way to address this communal sense of burnout and isolation that comes from overwork is to connect with a peer who understands what it is like to feel down or lonely or anxious. While peers are not easy substitutes for enjoying long-time friendships and building a supportive community, talking to a peer during a time of crisis can help to diffuse challenging feelings, provide a welcoming space for reflection, and reframe a situation. That’s where peer warmlines may come into play.
A warmline is a telephone service (aka a call line) for people who are looking for someone to discuss their daily struggles. Warmlines are staffed with peers who have lived experience of mental health struggles themselves and who are open to sharing their stories of challenging situations, recovery, and perseverance. Moreover, they listen to callers share their own struggles. Anyone can call a warmline (for free) to talk about their day, learn more about mental health resources in the area, and/or receive peer support as they themselves serve as a caregiver for a family member going through a mental health crisis.
The idea behind this community-based model of mental health support is that callers can talk with peers confidentially, without fear of what they say being misinterpreted or acted upon in a way that may be unhelpful. On their end, peers can share stories of hope and healing from their own lives, while offering voluntary and recovery-oriented support for callers. This approach centers on personal connection and respect. It seeks to support the caller’s decisions about the kind of mental health care they would like to receive that day.
Some preliminary studies on warmlines indicate that people who use warmlines show a reduction in the use of mental health crisis services; a reduction in their sense of isolation; and an increase in visits to primary care visits, leisure activities, and time spent among others (See Dalgin & Driscoll 2011; Dalgin et al. 2018). What is more, 33 states now have peer warmlines, including one in Texas.
This is all promising news for organizations like ours that are planning to open warmlines in the coming years. And as this model gains popularity across the U.S., we can only hope that small programs like warmlines make meaningful inroads to improve community mental health. By acknowledging shared struggles and vulnerabilities, we can begin to address the structural causes of loneliness and burnout and work collectively to address these social and political ills.