Crisis calling: On the job with a suicide hotline volunteer

Published 4:28 am Monday, February 14, 2022

Thomas Tran-Johnson never expected that his own life’s tragedy would allow him to help others. Having lost a sibling to suicide when he was a teen, Tran-Johnson initially believed nothing good could ever come from the loss.

“I mean, ‘How could it?’ After all, this was my brother,” he recalled.

A chance encounter in college, however, slowly began to change his perception. “We were required to complete a certain number of volunteer hours and honestly I wasn’t that thrilled about it. I was in such a low place already.”

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Tran-Johnson chose what he thought would be an “easy” volunteer assignment — manning a suicide hotline. “Yeah, it’s a little ironic. But honestly, I felt somewhat numb and figured, ‘At least I won’t have to leave my house.’ ”

As he began the three-week training, something remarkable began happening, he said.

“Even though it was a few years since my brother’s passing, I realized that there was obviously a lot I was still holding onto but mostly it was guilt. Like, I had missed something.”

The training opened his eyes to the fact that the factors leading up to suicide vary tremendously and that the family’s tragedy wasn’t his fault.

“Obviously the hotline isn’t about me. But it certainly did help me heal and then sort of pay it forward,” he said.

“By taking the time to simply listen and be a compassionate ear, I feel like I am making the world a better place and I’m definitely helping another family avoid the tragedy we endured.”

Tran-Johnson volunteers for the hotline at least 10 hours a month but it can be more depending on the time of the year, he said. “The holidays definitely create a strain on the hotline in terms of who’s available to volunteer and the number of people who are calling in. Holidays are tough for nearly everyone but especially people are already struggling with their mental health.”

No matter how many people he impacts on the line, Tran-Johnson said he always considers it a tribute to his late brother. “This work, the time, the sacrifice it takes, it’s all for him. I think he’s somewhere proud and smiling.”