The Superhuman Mind

Cases of extraordinary mental ability

Teens Texting for Free Help

Crisis Text Line allows teens to text a counselor from anywhere

Everyone at some time in his or her own life experiences sadness, anxiety, despair, fear and embarrassment. These are many of emotions that make us human. But what do we do when these stressors become too hard to bear? Experience tells us we talk to someone—a friend, spouse, colleague, a mental healthcare professional—who can help us figure out the best way to tackle the situation. Sometimes the answer we arrive at simply is to sit back and let the situation pass. At other times, we need to take a more active approach, engaging in therapy or taking psychiatric medication.

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Children lack the experience us adults acquire through weathering these emotional storms. They often don’t know where to turn, which can lead to awful consequences. Consider one alarming statistic: Suicide is the third leading cause of death for young individuals between the ages of 15 and 24 and the sixth leading cause of death for children between the ages of 5 and 14. But while suicide is so prevalent, even more children and adolescents live their lives beneath the shadow of mental conditions like depression, anxiety disorders, and ADHD. And even those who manage to avoid mental illness still must face the pressures of every day peer interaction, educational goals and family turmoil. Meeting children’s mental healthcare needs is complicated, so complicated that many are left behind.

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Nancy Lublin, founder of DoSomething.org, hopes to change that. Her new endeavor, Crisis Text Line, may be the answer for millions of children and teens in need of professional counseling.

Crisis Text Line is actually a side effect of the highly successful teen volunteer network Lublin has developed over the last several years, DoSomething.org. Part of DoSomething’s success involves the way in which they keep kids connected with the cause: text message. The average teen sends and receives around 4,000 texts per month with an open rate of over 96%. Lublin realized that the best way to keep kids connected to various causes was to send out regular text message reminders.

But after a few weeks of sending out text messages, the site began to receive text message replies. Most of these messages were innocuous—a positive comment or suggestion—but some of them were alarming. Lublin recounts one particularly heartbreaking text: “He won’t stop raping me,” a young girl texted. “It’s my dad. He told me not to tell anyone. Are you there?” The girl simply had nowhere else to turn. After reading that message, Lublin realized she had to do something, and started Crisis Text Line.

The service works much like a traditional support hotline: experienced, accredited counselors stand by waiting for individuals to call out for help. But instead of counseling by phone, it’s done via text message.

Text message counseling has several advantages over the traditional method. First, texting is discreet. Teens can communicate with a counselor even when surrounded by others without fear of embarrassment or retaliation. Second, the succinct and impersonal nature of text message communication allows for a much more direct conversation. Teens are much more likely to emote their true feelings when typing it onto a screen than when speaking face-to-face or even over the phone. Third, the texting allows for easier follow up. Counselors can send out text messages at regular intervals to ask whether the child took the course of action they agreed upon or whether they are in need of more help.

Crisis Text Line is also utilizing Big Data to improve our understanding of child and adolescent mental health epidemiology. By sifting through auto-tagged aggregate message data (with help from the MIT Media Lab), the service may soon be able to predict when a particular type of crisis—say a significant increase in methamphetamine use—hits a certain area.

But does it work? Lublin came to this week’s Up Experience in Houston armed with some pretty impressive figures. Launched at the beginning of August 2013, Crisis Text Line has already surpassed the 3,000 active user goal set for mid-November. Even more impressive is that Crisis Text Line is already responsible for 100 active rescues, situations in which a counselor summons authorities to intervene during a crisis.

Lublin recounts one particularly touching success story: An adolescent boy texted saying he was very depressed and considering taking some pills. The counselor who responded contacted local authorities while keeping in communication with the boy, who finally agreed to put the pills away in his desk. A few minutes later, he texted back that he was taking the pills. Fortunately, help arrived in time to save the boy’s life. Said the boy several months after the intervention, “You guys saved my life.”

A Crisis Text Line counselor can be contacted via text message at 741741. If you are a parent, spread the word about Crisis Text Line! If you are under the age of 25 and experiencing a mental health crisis or simply in need of advice, contact Crisis Text Line right now.

Kristian Marlow is a graduate student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and a member of the St. Louis Synesthesia Lab.

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