At 14, Erin Taylor become one of the original seven volunteers at Teen Talk, providing support to other youth via anonymous phone calls.
Teen Talk began in December 2003, after focus groups wrestled with how to support youth struggling with their mental health following the loss of several students from a local high school to suicide, according to program coordinator Kris Henriksen.
The answer came from a group of youth who recommended creating a support line for youths to talk to another young person about their struggles.
“Their biggest recommendation that they put forward was that they wanted to be able to talk with someone about their struggles and their challenges,” Henriksen said. “And they wanted it to be someone their own age, but they also wanted it to be someone safe.”
Now, Teen Talk has been offering anonymous, confidential and nonjudgmental support for teens by teens for almost 20 years.
“It just makes me emotional thinking about the fact that (youths) will go through all this training just so they can volunteer being nice to other people on the phone,” Henriksen said. “The level of kindness and compassion that young people are willing to share just blows my mind.”
One volunteer’s experience
Prior to taking any phone calls, Taylor and the other volunteers completed hours of training about how to assist others and provide empathy. What helped her feel most prepared to offer support to other young people was the trust from the adult staff who believed she was capable, she said.
An adult staff member is always on site in case a situation arises that requires the youth volunteer to get assistance.
“They are not expected to be, or allowed to be, social workers,” Henricksen said. “Our staff are the ones who make mandatory reports for everybody who needs it. What we want our youth volunteers to do is to be as empathetic and nonjudgmental three hours a week as they can possibly muster.”
For around four years, Taylor volunteered three hours a week. She received phone calls from parents asking for support with their teenager struggling with mental health, phone calls from youths wanting advice on how to support their friends, phone calls from youth who needed someone to talk to and even the occasional prank call — which was welcomed by Taylor because they helped provide comic relief, she said.
Many of the phone calls she received were from other youths who “just needed somebody to listen to them,” she said. Taylor recalled many instances talking to youths who were bullied at school and then went home where they felt unwanted or unloved, as well.
“I think what continued to motivate me was that I wanted to be able to show other people that they can get through these really dark times, too,” Taylor said.
As a teenager, Taylor experienced suicidal thoughts and a number of traumatic life experiences that contributed to struggles with her mental health.
“I don’t think at the time I knew how much I needed that,” Taylor said. “I wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for a series of events that began at Teen Talk with Kris.”
Volunteering for Teen Talk became the space where Taylor received the support she needed — from other volunteers, from staff and from important conversations with youth who called in. It helped provide her a sense of community and purpose, Taylor said.
“No matter what was going on in my life, I was always allowed to be me there,” Taylor said. “It was the place where I felt safe. It’s the place where I could be silly, I could be rambunctious, I could cry, I could be happy … That’s the place where I could be the most authentic.”
Today, Taylor works as a therapist after getting her master’s degree in social work, continuing to use many of the skills she learned volunteering at Teen Talk.
Teen Talk services
Currently, Teen Talk has 10 volunteers between ages 15 and 19 who each volunteer three hours a week. The organization is looking for more volunteers, according to Henricksen. Volunteers go through over 20 hours of training before taking any calls.
The Teen Talk hotline is staffed by volunteers Monday through Thursday from 4 to 9 p.m. and Fridays from 4 to 7 p.m. Teens or adults with questions regarding a teen in their life can also access support via text message, email or social media messaging.
The top five types of support given to those who reach out include providing positive peer support and encouragement, being someone to vent to, helping solve problems and identifying support systems, according to 2018 data. The data showed the top five topics people needed support with included feeling alone, family struggles, issues with friends, LGBTQ+ identity struggles and dating advice.
Teen Talk is not a crisis hotline. If needed, volunteers or staff will transfer callers to the Clark County Crisis Line, 911 or other appropriate resources.
Since COVID-19 sent people into isolation, Henriksen created compassion boxes to give out to teenagers needing a little something extra. The boxes are decorated on the outside by volunteers and filled with items such as snacks, pamphlets about coping strategies for different mental health struggles, journals, inspiring messages and a signature Peppy Pen cheerleader holding a sign with a message such as “you are worthy.” The boxes can be requested by counselors or family members for teenagers across Clark County. So far, Henriksen and the team of volunteers have made around 1,600 compassion boxes.