The Other End of the Line: Crisis Line Workers Meet Struggle with Empathy

Suzin Kratina picks up her granddaughter to get ready for lunchtime while her husband prepares 2-year-old Larken’s food in Missoula. (Photo by Ava Rosvold) 

By Allie Wagner, UM Byline Magazine

Editor’s Note: University of Montana School of Journalism students produce a magazine every other year as part of their capstone experience. Byline Magazine was written, photographed and edited by UM students under the mentorship of faculty advisers Chris Johns, former National Geographic editor-in-chief, and Denise Dowling, UM professor of journalism. This year, Byline Magazine tackled the crisis around mental health in Montana with a series of articles and photo essays. 

UM News will release a selection of stories to showcase student work. This story was written by Allie Wagner of Miles City, and photographed by Ava Rosvold of Wenatchee, Washington. Read more stories at

Several stories contain potentially triggering material. Don’t be reluctant to seek help if you or someone you know is in danger. Call or text the mental health crisis line at 988 or reach out to local resources to get the help you need.

MONTANA – Three hours before her 3 to 11 p.m. shift starts, Suzin Kratina sings. The melody of a lullaby travels down the hallway and into Kratina’s living room. Her granddaughter, Larken, is being put down for a nap.

Kratina and her husband watch their 2-year-old granddaughter four days a week. Books and art fill Kratina’s living room, including photographs she took herself. Larken’s toys are scattered about.

For Kratina, watching her granddaughter makes it easier to focus on her daily life instead of work.  

“You have to be in the moment, so that really helps,” Kratina said. 

Kratina works as a call support specialist at Lifeline Call Center through Western Montana Mental Health out of Missoula. It’s one of three centers in Montana that take calls to the 988 number, a national suicide and crisis lifeline that anyone can call for help. The Montana 988 number launched in July 2022, part of a national effort to replace the previous 10-digit number.

Down the hallway from sleeping Larken, Kratina enters the spare bedroom she works in from home. The room is painted salmon pink. Next to her laptop and second monitor, Kratina has her headset and a chocolate snack. 

“That’s for when things get really tense,” she said. “I have to have a little piece of chocolate.” 

At the call center, in the event that a call is intense or a specialist like Kratina has questions, Brittany Blair, the program manager at the center, is available to help them debrief. Kratina said that if she has questions she can always call or text Blair for help. 

“You do hear really tough stories,” Kratina said. 

But Kratina knew this would be the case. According to the Community Mental Health Journal, up to 77% of crisis line workers experience adverse effects on their mental health because of their work. While being a call specialist can be stressful, Kratina doesn’t think it has negatively impacted her own mental health. She likes cooking, walking and gardening to give back to herself.

An image of Kratina holding her granddaughter.
Suzin Kratina opens a Band-Aid for her granddaughter Larken’s paper cut that she gave herself while playing with her grandmother’s office supplies. (Photo by Ava Rosvold)

Shalani Gentry works for the Bozeman Help Center, another one of the three centers that handles 988 calls in Montana. When Gentry can, she walks the 15 minutes to and from work, a “transition period” before and after her shift that helps her keep feelings from work separate from her personal time.

“I think I’ve gotten better at taking those feelings and leaving them at work,” Gentry said. “I touch dirt, I go out in my garden or I pet my cat.” 

Kratina has a garden of her own that she enjoys spending time in, where she grows vegetables like tomatoes and carrots. 

 “I love being outside working in our garden,” Kratina said. 

Liška, Kratina’s small reddish dog, runs around the backyard while Kratina looks at her garden. Where Kratina goes, Liška follows. 

“[She’s] the most wonderful dog ever,” Kratina said. 

The Montana 988 line is not the only mental health resource center Kratina is involved in. She first got involved with the National Alliance on Mental Health in Missoula when a family member had a mental health crisis. While Kratina said she always had an interest in learning more about mental health, one of her children was the catalyst to actually getting involved. 

When her daughter started to struggle, Kratina and her husband tried to find resources to help. They enrolled in a 12-week class through NAMI meant to help families like hers. Through this class that Kratina now teaches, called Family-to-Family, Kratina said she learned how to listen and be more compassionate toward others, which helps her work at the call center.

“A lot of times what people really need is someone to talk to. We have regular callers, and they just need to talk,” Kratina said. 

While working as a call specialist means listening to some of the hardest parts of people’s lives, it can be rewarding, according to Kratina. Specialists have moments during calls where they know they have done their job. 

 “It’s this shift where you’re like, ‘okay, they’re over the hump,’” Gentry said. “They’re ready to see what they can do to help themselves in this moment.”

Kratina’s personal experiences with mental health challenges impact what she does with the call center and NAMI, and encourage her to stay involved. 

“We are not therapists,” she said. “We are just there to keep people safe for now.”

Just listening to someone can help keep them safe, Kratina said. She said that the people who call 988 want help, even if help is just talking to someone. 

Britney Marx works for Lifeline Call Center, like Kratina, in addition to doing in-person crisis care at Winds of Change Mental Health Center. 

“You can’t see if they are truly safe when you’re on the phone. You have to pay attention to their words,” Marx said. 

Slurring words is an example of speech that worries Marx on a call. 

“It is scary knowing that individuals are calling when they are in crisis, and it is your responsibility to respond,” Blair wrote in an email. “With training and growing confidence, the fear lessens with hearing that phone ring.” 

As part of a call specialist’s training, they listen to otherwise confidential calls that they did not take themselves. Listening back on other calls can give her ideas on other ways she can respond to callers, Kratina says. 

An image of Kratina reflected in a mirror.
Suzin Kratina’s reflection bounces off a mirror in her home office in Missoula. (Photo by Ava Rosvold)

During a single shift, Kratina has received as many as 10 calls and as few as zero. The average length of a call is 20 minutes, according to Blair, and there are usually two specialists per shift.

Before starting her shift, Kratina likes to make chai and do a breathing exercise. Once she is logged into the call system on her laptop, Kratina is ready to begin her shift and take her first call of the evening.

“Thank you for calling 988 Lifeline, my name is Suzin. How can I best support you this evening?”


Contact: Lee Banville, UM School of Journalism director and professor, 406-243-5250,