This Texting Service Can Save Lives

Crisis Text Line has taken help and intervention way beyond the telephone. And they’ve got the data to prove it.

Anonymous aid anywhere, anytime. Image via Fangirl/Pixabay.


A text-based crisis hotline has not only saved lives and helped thousands with emotional problems, it’s also providing key insights into effective counseling methods.

Like many powerful tools, digital anonymity can hurt or help. And when people are hurting, it turns out anonymity is a pretty powerful way to help them cope.

That’s the discovery Crisis Text Line is making. After years spent beefing up their ranks with thousands of well-trained counselors spread across the U.S., the round-the-clock national intervention line has placed a special focus on communication via text message.

So far, they’ve logged 56 million of them. They also tweet.

The key to the popularity of text isn’t just generational, although that’s a factor. As one Crisis Text Line supervisor explains, it’s all about the anonymity.

“Almost two-thirds of the people who text in tell us something they’ve never told another human being,” Becka Ross, a licensed clinical social worker and supervisor at Crisis Text Line, told The New York Times. “And they can text us from anywhere and nobody knows. If they were talking to a friend or calling a hotline, they’d have to go somewhere private. But a student can text us from the lunchroom when they’re being bullied or the school bathroom.”

Anonymity doesn’t drain value from the data Crisis Text Line collects either. Counselors know everything from when suicidal thoughts are spiking to what percent of users who describe themselves as “scared” and “alone” end up feeling less so after the intervention. They even know when kids text in for help with a parent in the house — one they don’t feel they can go to for help.

There’s even a Trends section of the Crisis Text Line site where you can watch the data unfold. The aim — “to empower journalists, researchers, school administrators, parents and all citizens to understand the crises Americans face so we can work together to prevent future crises from happening” — has been enough to draw interest from Stanford University researchers, not to mention over a dozen other countries, including Canada and the U.K.

Remarkably, though, one upshot of the data for Crisis Text Line defies another expectation of the digital age. While we hear a lot about how life online fragments and divides us, Crisis Text Line data shows that counselor specialization tailored to region or identity doesn’t determine whether or not an intervention session will have a positive result. Flexible, personal conversation adapted to needs on the fly does.

People, it turns out, are people — especially when they’re reaching out for help.

via Douglas Muth / Flickr

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