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Text Message Crisis Help Line Speeds Up Expansion Amid Pandemic

FILE - A person uses a smartphone in Chicago, Sept. 16, 2017. Many people reach out for help via texting because it is quiet and discreet.
FILE - A person uses a smartphone in Chicago, Sept. 16, 2017. Many people reach out for help via texting because it is quiet and discreet.

With the COVID-19 pandemic driving a mental health emergency, a service providing support for people in crisis via text messages is speeding up expansion plans to add four new languages in the next two and a half years.

Since the beginning of March, Crisis Text Line has received 40% more texts from people seeking help with loneliness, anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide.

The service currently operates in English in the United States, Canada, Britain and Ireland. The growing needs from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, pushed Crisis Text Line to cut in half its timeline to expand.

The organization now plans to offer help in Spanish, Portuguese, French and Arabic by the end of 2022. When the expansion is complete, Crisis Text Line says it will be able to assist one-third of the world's population.

While suicide prevention hotlines have been around for years, Crisis Text Line formed in 2013 to reach adolescents and young adults.

For this age group, "texting is a way that they are often most comfortable communicating," Crisis Text Line communications chief Ashley Womble said.

Text is discreet and quiet, Womble added, so people can get help when they cannot make a phone call at work, for example, or in an abusive home.

"Text may feel impersonal to some people," Womble said. But she noted the group's analysis shows that "the vast majority" — 68% — "of texters share something with their crisis counselor in a text that they have never shared with anyone before."

AI screens messages

Artificial intelligence screens each texter's first message for danger words that determine what priority they should get.

"If you are suicidal, and perhaps you say, 'I have pills and I think I'm going to take them,' you would be put on the top of the queue," Womble said.

A texter feeling lonely with relationship issues would be a lower priority but would still get a response within 5 minutes, she added. Conversations average about 45 minutes.

Counselors are volunteers who go through a 30-hour online training course where they learn active listening, collaborative problem-solving and other skills. Only about 30% qualify.

"This is really serious stuff," said Womble, also a volunteer. "Not everyone is cut out for it."

A professional psychologist or social worker backs up every counselor.

Crisis Text Line has found that concerns have changed over the course of the pandemic.

Mining the messages for keywords, counselors discovered at the beginning that people were largely worried about themselves and their families becoming infected.

As time went on, the effects of lockdowns and social distancing rose as top concerns.

"The quarantines were designed, of course, to keep us all safe physically," Womble noted, "but really started to weigh on people's mental health."

The third wave they are seeing is grief, especially among African Americans.

"It's not an equal opportunity virus," she said. Blacks are dying at disproportionate rates, and more African American texters are grieving.

One piece of relatively good news: The number of suicidal texters is down, from 29% in January through mid-March, to 22% now.

Crisis Text Line's expansion will be partly funded by a grant from the TED Audacious Project. The amount of the grant was not disclosed.