High tech mental health services embrace text support

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Dan Strauss lost his son, Alex, to suicide on October 11, 2010 when Alex was 17-years-old. Strauss said his son used text messages as a discreet way to reach out to others, including his therapist, when he was in crisis.

“He was really a lot more candid in texting than in talking or communicating in any other way,” Strauss said.

After his son’s death, Strauss founded The Alex Project to educate others about life-saving crisis text lines which are available 24/7.

“The reason we’ve been so keen on texting is that it’s important to meet people where they’re at,” Strauss said. “When you’re in a crisis you want something familiar, available 24/7 and discreet.”

September is suicide prevention month, making it the ideal time to talk about mental health with friends and family.

While many people worry about asking friends if they are suicidal, said Carrie Bearden Professor of Clinical Psychology at UCLA, “there’s no evidence to suggest that asking will make them more prone to suicidal ideation.”

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report showed that suicide has climbed nearly 30 percent since 1999 and now claims about 45,000 lives every year, making it the tenth leading cause of death in the United States.

“One in four Americans will have a mental illness in their lifetime,” Bearden said. “Getting that awareness that you’re not alone is so important.”

Still, talking about suicidal thoughts can be difficult, especially for a generation who grew up with smartphones.  

The National Crisis Text Line allows people to text with trained volunteers 24/7. According to the Crisis Text Line website, over 62 million messages from area codes across the U.S. have been processed to date.

According to a TED Talk by Nancy Lubin, the founder of the Crisis Text Line, every text is read and responded to by humans. Data and demographic information are collected through a voluntary survey after the conclusion of the conversation.

“I can tell you that the worst day of the week for eating disorders: Monday. The worst time of day for substance abuse: 5am. And that Montana is a beautiful place to visit but you do not want to live there, because it is the number one state for suicidal ideation,” Lubin said in a TED Talk.

The Crisis Text Line is staffed by about 4,000 volunteers from the ages of 18 to 70, according to Turner. The volunteers take extensive training course and are monitored by mental health professionals during their interactions with texters.

“We help the texter identify their own strengths and skills to utilize their own resources that they might not be able to identify in the moment,” Turner said.

Although volunteers are not therapists, they have access to local resources which can be sent to the person in crisis. If the texter is in imminent danger, Turner said that local law enforcement can be notified, and emergency services can be sent to the texter’s GPS-location, which is determined from their phone.

Turner says that Crisis Text Line has intervened in many cases of potential suicide and helped save lives by providing an outlet for people to share.

“People like to know that there’s a caring person on the other end of the line,” Turner said. “The thing about being suicidal or in crisis is that it’s very isolating.”

The Crisis Text Line plans to expand their coverage and offer text support in languages other than English. In addition to texting, there are many free, local resources available to people in crisis.

“Whether it’s a friend or an app, anything that intervenes in a crisis and buys time for that person is life-saving,” Strauss said.

Crisis Resources

In an emergency call 9-1-1 immediately

Call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273 TALK (8255)

Text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741

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