Film professor documentary photo

Current volunteers at Headquarters Counseling Center in Lawrence, Kansas. 

When University film professor Robert Hurst began looking into ideas for his next documentary, he didn’t think he would end up looking into the world of suicide hotlines.

But, when work on his then current documentary led him to the Headquarters Counseling Center in Lawrence, he decided to embark on a two-and-a-half-year journey to tell the story of volunteers that take calls for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at Headquarters.

“I’m interested in films that have some sort of social component to them,” Hurst said. “I got interested in the idea of suicide hotlines because I had been working on another project about veterans, mental health, and PTSD. So, it sort of naturally segued into this project.”

Although Hurst wasn’t particularly interested in films about mental health, he said that this story had enough of that social component to really be worth taking the time to tell.

His now-released documentary, entitled “The Listeners,” takes a look at young adult volunteers going into the suicide hotline program and the rigorous training required to be an official volunteer.

Andy Brown, Headquarters’ executive director, found Hurst’s involvement with the specific trainees to be the most noticeable aspect of the whole film process.

“[Hurst] basically came in and followed a training staff of volunteers from the start all the way to the finish,” Brown said. “He then checked up with them about a year later to see where they were.”

These students go through extensive training. Scenarios include having to answer situational phone calls from people with guns to their heads, in order to truly test their ability to withstand pressure and keep their composure in such serious situations.

Hurst said that witnessing this aspect of the training was tough to take in at times. After participating in part of the training himself, he said it really brought weight to all that was going on.

“It’s pretty challenging when you’re doing role plays and pretending and the phone rings and someone says ‘Well, I’ve got this gun here and I want to blow my own head off.’ That’s pretty scary, even when it’s not the real thing.”

Despite the challenges, Hurst found the volunteers' care for others and desire to do good as something worth capturing.

“It’s interesting in the sense that, at every age, there are people who care deeply about one thing or another, and are really taking action,” Hurst said. “All of the people in the documentary were really interested in helping other people. They’re all interested in being in the helping professions. So that was really cool to see. They’re all very mature people.”

Hurst also said that the students he documented had to deal with some problems themselves from answering the calls. However, he didn’t see this as a problem, necessarily, so much as an asset to their job.

“They’ve been through some stuff, which is actually positive when it comes to volunteering and relating to people who are in crisis,” Hurst said. “A lot of people have learned to deal with it, and the result of that is they didn’t shut down, they want to help other people.”

— Edited by Casey Brown 

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