For Teens, Text-Based Crisis Lines Increase Accessibility Amid Mental...


For Teens, Text-Based Crisis Lines Increase Accessibility Amid Mental Health Emergency

By Nadia Tamez-Robledo     Mar 29, 2023

For Teens, Text-Based Crisis Lines Increase Accessibility Amid Mental Health Emergency

“Sounds like you’re a really good older brother.”

Logan Shideler said that to a 14-year-old boy who had called California Youth Crisis Line because he was contemplating suicide. Shideler lent an ear to the boy, who talked about feeling protective of his younger brother.

The people who answer the phone aren’t there to give advice, says Shideler, who supervises volunteers for the crisis line, which is run by the nonprofit California Coalition for Youth. Instead, when appropriate, they give encouragement and share resources — like information for a food pantry, for example, if the caller mentions food insecurity. The young people and sometimes parents who call, text or chat with crisis line volunteers are many times simply looking for someone to listen, he adds.

“If you've had a bad day, who would you go to? Some of these people don't have anybody,” says Shideler, who works as a school counselor by day.

Others have exhausted the people they would normally turn to, he continues.

“Some young people have those friends, but they are also 12 and they don’t know what to do either,” Shideler says. “The other people around them don’t have the tools to help them move through the conversation, or they don’t have an adult they can trust, or they're getting a lot of advice.”

Leaders at organizations that offer crisis lines say the services are a good resource for teens, in addition to adults, who are experiencing distress. That’s significant right now because psychologists sounded the alarm this year that U.S. kids are in the midst of a mental health crisis. This includes increasing rates of depression and suicidal ideation, which were already increasing before the pandemic and made worse during lockdowns and the ensuing isolation.

Last summer, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services launched a revamped National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which shifted from a 10-digit number to the three-digit 988 (though the original phone number is still in service). Now dubbed The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, the resource is a “network of more than 200 state and local call centers” supported by federal funds, according to an HHS news release.

In its first six months of operations, the new number reported handling more than 2 million inquiries.That high volume highlights the demand among U.S. residents, including school-aged children, for mental health support.

The change also introduced the ability for users to text the 988 number for mental health support. Teens may be more likely to reach out for help via text or chat compared to calling, advocates say, and data on the issue backs them up.

More than three-quarters of people who reach out to the Crisis Text Line, a nonprofit that provides free mental health support, are under age 25, according to a 2022 analysis by researchers from the University of Rochester, Columbia University and Northwestern University. Nearly 80 percent of texters were female, with about the same proportion of texters dealing with symptoms of depression or anxiety. Another 23 percent of texters had thoughts of suicide.

A Sounding Board for LGBTQ+ Youth

With text-based crisis services uniquely positioned to appeal to young people, one of the advocates for adding texting to 988 was the Trevor Project, a nonprofit aimed at preventing suicide among LGBTQ+ youth.

LGBTQ+ youth who call or text 988 are redirected to the Trevor Project crisis line, which can provide support that’s tailored to their specific needs. That’s especially useful for young people who can’t afford or otherwise access mental health counseling because of their location.

Leaders at the nonprofit say that the population they serve is facing particular challenges to their well-being these days. The Trevor Project is tracking over 575 bills aimed at rolling back rights for LGBTQ+ people in states around the country, according to Casey Pick, director of law and policy for the organization. Bill sponsors say the laws banning gender-affirming care for youths or regulating who can play on sports teams are meant to protect children, but Pick argues that they are having a detrimental effect on LGBTQ+ youth.

“I can say a number of young people have mentioned the cruel and unnecessary legal efforts taking place in their states,” Pick says of young people who reach out to the Trevor Project’s crisis line. “The truly vicious language coming out of state houses is resonating down to dining tables and classroom hallways. When you hear bullying on that level, it resonates.”

It’s not just teens, she adds, but parents of LGBTQ+ youth have also called with fears over proposed laws that could impact their families.

According to Trevor Project research on text and chat crisis support, young people prefer digital services because of “confidentiality (68 percent), ease of being oneself (63 percent), and reduced fears of being misgendered for transgender youth (45 percent).”

The crisis line is not just about offering a phone number, Pick says.

“It’s the idea of creating a system where everyone knows they have somebody to call, somebody will respond in an appropriate way, and they have somewhere to go,” she explains. “‘I'm in a moment of crisis and you can help me de-escalate? What do I do for a long-term issue that I’m confronting?’”

What’s the Experience Like?

When it comes to the type of support that young crisis line callers or texters receive, Pick says it’s helpful to think about what you might say during an initial meeting with a therapist.

“What you’re going to hear is a lot of listening,” she explains. “‘How are you feeling? How can we move through this?’ Letting the young person take the lead. You’re not calling a crisis line for somebody to save you — you are getting help that you need.”

Shideler says that the young people who reach out to the California Youth Crisis Line, which is designed primarily to serve 12- to 24-year-olds, think of volunteers as older authority figures. Volunteers are trained to ask questions and quickly build rapport with callers and texters, with the overarching goal of helping the caller think about their situation logically rather than emotionally. While volunteers don’t offer advice, they will discourage callers from doing anything harmful or illegal.

And if a frustrated parent calls with worries about their child’s behavior, Shideler might say, “It sounds like your kid is important to you and you're trying to figure this out the best you can.”

“We try to tell our volunteers and our staff that people are the heroes of their own story,” Shideler says, “and that they do have the capability to arrive at their own answers in the end.”

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