by Travis Handy
BLACKSBURG, Va.–One in four people in the U.S. suffer from a diagnosable mental health condition. That means in the typical family of four, one member is or has been affected by a mental health disorder. Additionally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, mental illness accounts for more disability in developed countries than any other group of illnesses, including cancer and heart disease.
In Virginia, suicide recently ranked 11th for cause of death among residents and was the third leading cause of death among 10 to 24-year-olds. Southwest Virginia has resources available to people struggling with mental illness, depression and suicidal thoughts and substance abuse, in the form of volunteers trained to offer support, empathy and mental health information in crisis situations.
The Raft Crisis Hotline is a program of New River Valley Community Services. The program began in 1969 as an effort by Virginia Tech students who wanted to help individuals struggling with drug addiction, and became a contracted service to NRVCS in the ‘80s. Today the hotline answers 10-15,000 calls each
year, according to Brittany Mabry, Raft Crisis Hotline manager since 2009.
“We get calls from people who are just needing someone to talk to, have a lot going on in life and maybe don’t feel comfortable talking about their problems with their friends or family,” said Mabry. “So they can call us to talk to someone anonymously and just get a listening ear.”
Mabry said the program also has clinicians on staff who are trained professionals, so the hotline receives a lot of calls from people who know that they need to talk to one of the clinicians, hospitals and police departments. Volunteers are there to steer those individuals in the direction of the resources they need.
Volunteers are essential to the Raft hotline because they provide the majority of the services the program does. With only one full-time paid employee, the 70-90 volunteers with the program are important to callers who might not have anyone else to talk to or might feel like they are at their lowest point with nowhere else to turn. Volunteers go through an intensive, nearly semester-long series of training tasks, including shifts at the hotline with experienced volunteers, and becoming familiar with different topics they may encounter while taking calls.
“My experience with Raft has been completely awesome,” said Raft volunteer Tim Kennedy, a Radford University Senior majoring in Psychology. “There are calls that I’m particularly sensitive to, but those are the calls I offer the best assistance in. Although I occasionally go to bed thinking about these very sad calls, I go to bed more often knowing that I’ve helped someone.”
Kennedy said the experience “can be extremely eye-opening.” He also pointed to the startling 1 in 4 statistic, noting how close to home it really hits.
“One in four, that could be our parent, sibling, child, neighbor or friend,” said Kennedy. “People are often too afraid to ask their friends and family for help due to the negative stigma associated with mental health and substance abuse related conditions, but it shouldn’t always be their responsibility to ask for help.”
According to Kennedy, one way to help is to take more opportunities to ask our friends and family members how they are doing.
“Our job as volunteers would be easier,” said Kennedy. “Everyone is capable of being a good friend. You don’t need to undergo our training for that.”
Another Raft volunteer, Analise Adams, has been offering service to the program since spring 2010 and is currently a Crew Chief. She is a junior Human Development and Psychology major at Virginia Tech, and she says her experience with Raft has been valuable to her professional development.
“I chose to volunteer with Raft because I wanted to get involved with something that would really help the community, specifically a way that I hadn’t been involved in before,” said Adams.
Adams said her interest in volunteering came partially from wanting to impact a population that is normally marginalized and underserved. Her responsibilities include volunteer support and management, helping with fundraising, and training hotline volunteers.
“From an academic standpoint, I’ve learned a lot about what ‘psychology’ really means in the real world,” said Adams. “I’ve learned how to really work with clients and provide empathy in a way that is supportive and empowering. Personally, I’ve also learned a lot through learning more about what mental health is like in the New River Valley, what services work well and where there are gaps.”
Both Adams and Kennedy would encourage others to volunteer.
“It benefits the community, but it also benefits the volunteer and gives a great feeling that you are able to be a part of making a difference,” said Adams.
Technical funding for Raft is provided by NRVCS, such as space for the program and the manager’s salary, but outside of that, funding comes from private donations and fundraising events like Run for Raft.
Run for Raft is the program’s annual 5K run and 1-mile memorial walk, now in its sixth year. Last year the run raised $4,000 to support Raft‘s services and volunteers. This year’s fundraising goal is $5,000. According to Mabry there are usually around 100 participants in the event, and as of this writing there are 70 registered participants.
The 6th annual Run for Raft will take place at Margaret Beeks Elementary School in Blacksburg on Saturday, April 28. Registration and check-in opens at 8:00 a.m. and the events begin at 9:00 a.m. Regular registration fees for the 5K and the 1-mile walk are $20 and $15, respectively, and registrations will be accepted up to 15 minutes before race time. Registration may also be completed or donations can be made online before the day of the event.