News and analysis
March 10, 2013

Depressed Teenagers Can Call or Text for Help

A coalition in Minnesota urges troubled teenagers to send a text message to get help.

When a coalition in northeastern Minnesota developed a program to prevent young people from committing suicide, it wanted to be sure teenagers would feel comfortable using the service. So it set up text messaging as well as phone lines. And the text-message option is far more popular.

Some months the TXT4LIFE hotline logs 400 text sessions, compared with 12 to 15 phone calls for the entire state. In 2012, the hotline handled 3,842 text sessions with 1,985 young people asking for help.

“We think the reason they don’t call the crisis line is that it’s a little too intimate for them to hear somebody’s voice on the other end,” says Mark Kuppe, chief executive of Canvas Health, one of the nonprofits involved in the project.

When people hear a voice, he says, they automatically make assumptions about what kind of person they’re talking to. “In this, you can picture whoever you want to be the person helping you on the other side, because all you’re getting back is a text.”

Asking Direct Questions

For crisis counselors, the emotional distance of text messaging often means they need to ask direct questions early in the conversation to determine whether the caller is about to try to end his or her life. If the caller is suicidal, counselors attempt to gauge whether he or she has a plan and the means to carry it out.

“We’re asking those questions pretty specifically and then looking at their responses,” says Mr. Kuppe, “because we can’t pick up on any kind of tone inflection, even though people try to use characters or try to use capitals to do inflection in texting.”

The average text session lasts 50 minutes, but with the delays between messages, that translates into 20 to 30 minutes of real conversation. Crisis counselors, who type their responses through a sophisticated software program on a desktop computer, can handle as many as three text-message conversations at a time.

Counselors generally sit in a group as they answer calls and texts and can consult with one another about the best approach to take.

Locating People in Distress

Mobile technology also comes into play as a way to get help to the most troubled callers.

The hotline works hand-in-hand with police and emergency dispatchers. Of the 469 text sessions last year in which the callers identified themselves as suicidal, 50 required emergency interventions. In several cases when callers wouldn’t say where they were, the police were able to use the GPS coordinates of the callers’ cellphones to determine their location.

Send an e-mail to Nicole Wallace.