Millions Are Texting — Instead of Calling — Crisis Hotlines


woman texting on phone woman texting on phone
Many crisis hotlines now offer a text service as a way to reach younger people. ljubaphoto/Getty Images

People in crisis have long been urged to pick up the phone and call a hotline, but there's a growing population who prefer to use text-based crisis services, instead.

"The largest percentage of our texting messages are from male youth below the age of 17," emails Gene Dobrzynski, assistant call center director with Nevada-based Crisis Call Center, which offers both phone and text services. "My personal belief is that in general, males are nervous calling on the phone to discuss their problems. With texting, they are able to hide their emotions versus a telephone conversation."

It's not just young men who texting helplines either. Forty-six percent of the people who contact Crisis Text Line are age 17 and under, and 79 percent are female, says Ashley Womble, head of communications for the organization in an email interview. In general, about 75 percent of the group's texts come from people under 25.

The Rise of Texting

The added layer of anonymity in texting, coupled with the convenience factor, are big deals for people in crisis as they need to be able to take action quickly, easily and confidentially. "Texting is private, comfortable and accessible. People can send a text from anywhere, without making a sound," Womble adds.

Although the voiceless option seems impersonal to some, the shift in format makes sense because a lot of users have never known life without texting, and are much more comfortable communicating that way. The use of text (also known as SMS messaging) as a general communication method experienced a tremendous increase in the early 2000s. June 2001 saw 30 million messages exchanged in the United States alone, with that number peaking in 2011 at 2.3 trillion (use of other apps for a similar purpose, like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, have kept the number from climbing).

This explosion in texting inspired the social change group Dosomething.org to spin off Crisis Text Line, as members started texting to ask for help with personal issues.

"In the five years since our launch in 2013, our text volume has increased each year," Womble says. "Between 6,000 and 10,000 texters contact Crisis Text Line each day." In fact, the org reports that more than 91 million text messages have been exchanged since they opened in 2013.

As the means of contacting a crisis line has expanded over time, so have the reasons for using one. When the first suicide prevention center in the U.S. opened in 1958 it was focused on just that aspect of mental health. Now, Crisis Text Line and many other services advertise that counselors are available for any "painful emotion for which you need support."

"Crisis Text Line is here for people of all ages who are in a mental or emotional state that has left them in a dangerous condition or unable to cope in a functional or productive way," Womble says. "We believe everyone has the right to feel supported and this is a no judgement zone. We cover a whole range of crises, from anxiety and depression, to eating disorders and bullying to suicide and self-harm."

Drawbacks to Texting

The transition isn't without its challenges, though. Dobrzynski explains that it can be more difficult to assess the safety of the individual due to the lack of voice contact. "Additionally, the lack of demographic information makes it hard to assess and provide resources," he says. "The texter may not disclose their age or may inaccurately disclose their age or gender making it difficult to access needed resources."

He notes that during fiscal year 2018, his crisis center answered 66,554 contacts. Most of these contacts were by telephone, but 11,407 were text messages. And that number is likely to grow.

To that end, text-based counselor training is an ongoing experience, tweaked regularly to hopefully get it just right. Among the lightbulb moments for Crisis Text Line was the discovery that the most effective counselors identify texter strengths in a genuine manner, by texting affirmations like "you showed courage texting us."

The group intends to continue gleaning such details to help users, while also collecting data to hopefully further mental health research efforts. They also launched CrisisTrends.org, a publicly available portal with data and trends pertaining to relevant mental health issues, such as the worst states for anxiety and the time of day in which people tend to have the most problems with stress and anxiety.