How Texting (Yes, Texting) Can Save Teens In Trouble

Teens in trouble can text Crisis Text Line for help. Photo Courtesy of Getty ImagesTexting and teens gets a bad rap. But a new service targeting teens in trouble hopes to change that. Crisis Text Line is similar to a traditional hotline in that teens are directly connected to trained counselors—but instead of talking, they text. “We brought a new technology to an old circumstance,” Nancy Lublin, creator of Crisis Text Line, tells Yahoo Shine. And it’s working. The 24/7 service had a soft launch in August, and says Lublin, “We thought we would have 1,000 users by mid-November, but we passed the 3,000 mark two weeks ago.”

So, how does it work? Teens text “Listen” to 741-741 and messages are fielded by one of three crisis call centers in Seattle, Boston and Miami. “We outsource the counseling to the same counselors that work with teens on the phone,” says Lublin, who notes that texting allows each counselor to work with up to four teens at one time. Plus, the fast nature of texting means that counselors are making an impact on teens in less time. “It might take 15 minutes to really understand what’s going on by phone, but we’re seeing that by the third message, kids are blurting out exactly what’s happening. It’s pretty powerful,” says Lublin, who is also the founder of DoSomething.org, the country’s largest not-for-profit for young people and social change.

It’s no surprise that texting is an effective way to chat with teens, says Pamela Rutledge, Ph.D., director of the nonprofit Media Psychology Research Center in Boston. “Texting is a very normal way of communicating for kids, so it feels very comfortable,” she says. “You can very privately and invisibly text for help in a way that feels very secure. A traditional hotline isn’t as immediate, and it doesn’t feel as private because kids feel identified by their voice.” Rutledge also points to the fact that texting signals to teens that they are being understood. “[Counseling via text] screens the person at the other end of the text as someone who knows how to communicate with them,” she says.

According to Lublin, texts have come in on topics ranging from, “How do I talk to girls,” to the case of a teenager who swallowed a bottle of pills while being counseled via text. The counselor, fearing the teen might harm himself, had asked the boy for his address during their text session and immediately sent the police to his home. “The messages went quiet and we didn’t hear anything back for 20 minutes,” recalls Lublin. “The next text message we got was from his parents, saying, thank you for saving our son.” In fact, according to Lublin, Crisis Text Line is seeing two to three times the volume of severe issues—meaning those cases in which a Crisis Text Line counselor detects imminent harm, or in which a teen is at risk of attempting suicide within 24 hours—compared to a traditional hotline.

Lublin raised $4 million to get Crisis Text Line off the ground and hopes the seed money will get the organization through to its official nationwide launch in January. “We have the wonderful problem that Crisis Text Line is taking off faster than we anticipated, so we are definitely going to need more funding, but for good reason—it’s working.” Want to help? Individuals can donate at crisistextline.org, and, says Lublin, get the word out by posting 741-741 to Facebook or Twitter. “Even something as small as a post can really help someone.”