From 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays, Lindsey Jones oversees the funding of University of Florida research projects as a grant administrator.
Back in December of 2021, she would set aside four hours at home and wait for the phone to ring, ready to help the distressed person who decided to call one of the five phone numbers belonging to the Alachua County Crisis Center.
With the acquired skills of crisis intervention, active listening, suicide prevention and more, Jones, 31, said becoming a volunteer crisis line counselor transformed her relationships and perspective of the world.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but also one of the most fulfilling and rewarding and life changing,” she said.
The crisis center is now seeking new volunteers to join its first training session of the year on Saturday. No prior experience or certification is required to join, and there are no training fees. The center requires two training sessions a week for a seven-week period and a commitment of one shift a week for six months.
Decades ago, the county’s crisis center stood out from others by offering full counseling and mobile response services along with its hotline. Once the National Suicide Prevention Hotline switched to a 988 dial in July, the change brought more money to all crisis centers throughout the state, including full-time paid positions for crisis line counseling.
Volunteers come from all walks of life, such as Jones who has a bachelor’s degree in film and media studies. She said the psychology-driven role piqued her interest into attending a class as she spent years volunteering in other organizations.
“We have people sort of across all kinds of backgrounds and demographics,” Crisis Center Director Alexandra Martinez said. “But, the common thread for sure are people who feel that they can open their hearts up to people who are struggling and engage in those really painful and deep conversations with people.”
Martinez began working at the crisis center in 2005, four years after receiving her specialist degree in marriage and family therapy from UF. She became the director in 2014.
“Our fearless leader, Ali…she is just so wonderful,” Jones said. “I know she worked so hard to get funding for us and to expand our resources.”
The added funding helps tackle the growing concern for mental health in Florida. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, nearly half of the 796,000 Floridians untreated for mental health conditions was due to costs. Alachua County is in the top 25% for hospitalizations from mental health conditions surpassing the state rate since 2015, according to the Florida Department of Health.
“All our services are free,” Martinez said. “If you’re worried about a neighbor or a friend, call us and we can support you through that.”
Jones followed the instructions of Martinez and other training coordinators as she took her first classes in the fall 2020. She watched as trainers transformed the attitudes of callers by engaging their feelings and vulnerability. Likewise, she had to navigate her own concerns about the weight of responsibility behind her role.
“Understandably, there can be a lot of anxiety and fear kind of going into everything.” Training Coordinator Kevin Sosa said. “For those very same reasons, it makes the training as rewarding as it is the payoff and being able to help people immediately when they’re at their darkest moments.”
Sosa began volunteering in the summer of 2014 while pursuing a bachelor’s degree in psychology from UF. He said he was already interested in working in the mental health field, but the volunteering gave him enough hands-on experience to reaffirm his career path. He later joined the staff in the spring of 2018.
Despite the challenging process to become a crisis line counselor, he said the skills of “just being able to listen and understand people in a way you haven’t before” is invaluable.
One trait that surprised Jones was the culture of compassion with her coworkers and trainers that often can’t be found in other workplaces, she said.
“There’s a warmth and compassion with the crisis center that can get you emotional sometimes, because it is just so meaningful.”
Jones took a break from volunteering after fulfilling her initial commitment to spend time on a postbaccalaureate degree in psychology. As she further immerses herself into the world of mental health, she encourages people with the time and interest to give it a shot.
“But just try it. You might surprise yourself,” she said. “There’s lots of folks we see just blossom and open up over the course of training.”