Meeting teens where they are: Suicide prevention by text message
on September 16, 2014
Alameda County teenagers bogged down by grief can share their sorrows and find help with a text.
By texting the word “safe” to 839863, a young person struggling with suicidal thoughts can connect with a trained counselor from the Oakland-based Crisis Support Services, an organization dedicated to suicide prevention since the 1960s. The conversation that follows, with a trained counselor at one end, can be conducted entirely by text messages.
The crisis agency runs a 24-hour suicide hotline that fields nearly 66,000 calls a year. But the majority of callers are older; teenagers rarely call.
“We know that anyone younger than 30 isn’t picking up the phone and calling,” said Binh Au, the agency’s crisis line director.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Each year, about 4,600 kids nationwide die by their own hand, out of a total U.S. toll of 38,364. Social media now are playing a role in prevention nationally: the nonprofit American Foundation for Suicide Prevention asked people to post messages with the hashtag #EndSuicide, and photos tagged #SelfiesAgainstStigma to cap Suicide Prevention Week last week (Sept. 8 to 12).
After a Pew Research survey came out showing that kids would rather text than use the phone, the Oakland-based Crisis Support Services decided to meet the teenagers at their level, said text line coordinator Karen Oberdorfer.
In 2011, the crisis center began a three-year pilot program to see if the text line would bring in more teenagers. In the first eight months of the program, the text line received 128 “safe” texts, which initiate contact. The number of initial contact texts rose to 386 in 2012-2013 to 509 last fiscal year.
Last year, the seeds of those initial contacts grew into 385 text conversations. The average text conversation lasted around 70 minutes, according to Oberdorfer. The conversations weren’t all about suicide.
Conversations cover a host of teenage problems: cutting, eating disorders, family conflict, relationship troubles, or someone just feeling low and isolated, and looking for a friendly text.
Real texts excerpted from teenagers’ messages provided by the crisis agency show the scope of conversations engaged through this medium. (All identifiable language has been removed to preserve and protect client privacy.)
One teen texted, “…the other day, after being clean for 4 months, I went to go and cut, but saw the number, and yeah, texted and my wrists are still healed 🙂 ”
Another youth expressed the difficulty of reaching out, texting: “I don’t want help yet I do want help. Its a little weird and confusing.”
Still another said that the medium of texting opened an avenue of communication, writing, “It feels fine mainly because i prefer texting it over talking on the phone. Thank you for the conversation.”
Validation comes in the form of hopeful messages, such as one from a teen who texted: “At first i didn’t know if i could tell someone my problems without knowing them, but you really helped.”
Connecting with kids at an early age and teaching them basic coping skills to help prevent a suicide later in life is one of the leading concepts in the field, according to Mercedes Coleman, director of Teens For Life.
“Ever since we started the text line, it’s been amazing,” Coleman said. “The young people just eat it up.”
This year the program became fully funded, and is now a permanent service. The teen text line is for teens only. The texting hours are 4 p.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week.
Local and national toll-free hotlines still exist for people who prefer to pick up the phone.
24 Hour Crisis Hotline Alameda County: 1-800-309-2131
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)
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