The use of text messaging as a tool for teens in crisis is fairly new. But mental health-related text messaging programs – and studies that corroborate their significance – are on the rise.
How a text message hotline can help teens in crisis
Text message crisis hotlines are often targeted towards teenagers who are struggling with issues such as bullying, mental health, or problems with family and friends. By texting in to a shortcode, teens can chat in real-time with a counselor. These crisis counselors talk teens through their situations over an anonymous SMS conversation. In cases where a teen’s life may be in danger, counselors can also reach out to emergency responders for assistance.
Crisis Text Line, founded by DoSomething.org in 2011, was the first national 24/7 SMS crisis hotline that caters specifically to teenagers and young adults. Text-a-Tip is another a 24-hour SMS service based in Chicago, with licensed and certified mental health professionals as crisis counselors.
Why teenagers are willing to talk about their problems over text message
Text messaging is the number one communication channel for teens and young adults. Since face-to-face interactions about personal issues can be uncomfortable for teenagers, text messaging offers a valuable veil of anonymity that shields them from feelings of shame, guilt, or social repercussions. Text messaging also helps teens feel safe since they can text from anywhere – the school bus, a classroom, or their home – without having to worry about other people noticing.
Mark Filler, a substantial funder of Text-a-Tip, sees the program as an invaluable service to teens and their community. “The idea was that if any student in the schools had a concern either about themselves or about a friend, that they would have an anonymous place they could text to try to get help,” said Filler. He also noted how the program is also beneficial for students who want to help other students. “We know that friends always know what is going on way before the parents,” he said. “They know the details.”
The growing prevalence of text messaging for improved mental health services
The use of text messaging programs for mental health is starting to extend beyond the nonprofit sector. A new service called TalkSpace that has been covered by CNN, The Wall Street Journal, and other media outlets, provides unlimited texting between the user and a therapist. And as the popularity of these types of programs rise, so too does the research supporting their efficacy.
A recent article by Health Data Management, for example, explains how text messaging is proving to be a better tool for treating mental illness than mobile apps. Two other recent studies in the Journal of Affective Disorders and Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Networking found that text therapy can be just as effective – if not more so – than traditional face-to-face therapy.
The rise in these services comes at a crucial time in the healthcare landscape, when busy schedules and limited health coverage options can make it difficult for people to seek the support that they need a regular basis. It’s a new way of understanding and using technology – as the link between the inner life and the outer world – and, based upon the rising popularity of SMS programs like Crisis Text Line, TalkSpace and Text-a-Tip – it is a necessary one.
As more people continue to use these services, the more we can learn about the issues that teens and adults face and the better equipped we can be to help them. For example, Crisis Text Line publishes data online for researchers, citizens, and journalists to see and use. Overall, these programs all herald optimistic improvements on the mental healthcare landscape.
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