By ILANA KOWARSKI
Now bullied schoolchildren in New York City have a number to call for help, a crisis hotline sponsored by the teachers union in response to a series of suicides by ostracized teens.
The United Federation of Teachers spent more than $50,000 to create an anti-bullying hotline and publicity campaign, with the backing of the New York City Council and other community organizations.
“We want to make sure that students have a place to go for support,” said the UFT president, Michael Mulgrew.
The hotline went live on Oct. 19 and will be accepting calls for the rest of the school year. Children can reach the hotline at 212-709-3222, Monday through Friday between 2:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Calls will be answered by professional counselors from the Mental Health Association of New York, and all conversations will be confidential, as required by law.
Mulgrew hopes that the anonymous service will make it easier for bullied students to admit that they need help.
“What we found is that the hardest step is the first step, because they are ashamed of being outcasts,” he said.
According to mental health experts, anonymous hotlines alleviate the stigma of psychological distress. “The person on the other end answering the phone doesn’t know you,” social worker Elana Premack Sandler wrote in a blog post. “That anonymity has made hotlines a real resource for people struggling, not just with suicidal thoughts, but with day-to-day mental health crises.”
Gloria Jetter, a hotline volunteer and full-time counselor for the Mental Health Association of New York,, said that she would offer children an opportunity to talk through their problems and strategize about how to deal with bullies. “We will always encourage them to speak to a trusted adult,” she said.
Lawmakers praised the union for paying the full cost of the hotline.
Council Speaker Christine Quinn said that the hotline comes at a time when it is urgently needed: 66.4 percent of teachers say they have witnessed bullying, and many say that they felt powerless to stop it, according to a 2011 survey by the New York Civil Liberties Union.
“The reality is, if you poll parents and ask them what makes them worry, the first thing they talk about isn’t grades or college admissions; it’s bullying,” Quinn said.
However, funding for the anti-bullying hotline is not guaranteed after this year. Mulgrew said that the union might not be able to pay for the program in the future, but he promised to campaign for the donations necessary to make sure it survives.
Research into the effectiveness of such suicide hotlines, which serve a similar function, has shown that they provide deterrence. In 2007, the American Association of Suicidology issued a report demonstrating that depressed individuals were significantly less likely to say that they wanted to kill themselves after they received anonymous counseling over the phone.
Several politicians pledged to support the hotline with financing, including Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who described it as “a powerful initiative that lets any student know that help is never more than a phone call away.”
Bullying has been a concern among New York legislators for years, and the union’s anti-bullying campaign is one of many in the state’s history. Just last year, the state passed the Dignity for All Students Act, which mandated civility courses for kindergarten through 12th grade students.
State Democratic Leader John Sampson vowed to continue supporting such initiatives.
“To give our children the world class education they deserve,” he said, “we must first give them a school environment free of harassment and discrimination.”