Texting is not only teens and twenty-somethings’ preferred method of communication, but it’s also a way to save lives as Do Something CEO Nancy Lublin explained in a powerful TED talk. Young people feel comfortable with the medium and after Do Something unexpectedly received heart-wrenching texts from teens in crisis, the organization decided to take action. They’re helping form a Crisis Text Line as a subsidiary of DoSomething.org, where 13-25 year olds in need can text in and get help from appropriate partner organizations using this platform. Anastasia Goodstein, the founder of Ypulse and now Chief Programming Officer at Crisis Text Line, explains how the national hotline will work, the power of texting, and the possibilities this will present in helping youth.
Ypulse: How did the idea for the Crisis Text Line come about and what does the initiative seek to do?
Anastasia Goodstein: Do Something has really been pioneering the use of SMS to engage teens and get them active in different causes, and whenever you reach out to teens and they have the opportunity to respond, especially anonymously, you’re bound to get somebody who shares something personal or is feeling vulnerable and sees it as an opportunity to tell someone.
Do Something received a text back from a teenager who was saying that she was being raped by her father and I think that brought home the potential and power of the medium, not just to engage teens and young adults in activism, but potentially to save lives. That sparked thinking of how do we do this on a large scale to make a difference.
Currently there are many different hotlines from The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to The Trevor Project. Some of them have experimented with texting and many of them are still experimenting with chatting, but it’s really a resource issue for a lot of them of how to do it on a large enough scale. I think they all know that when it’s marketed well, the word really gets out and they’re going to need to be able to respond at scale.
That’s been the challenge for organizations, but Do Something has lots of experience texting at scale. They text over 350,000 kids a week so they can provide technology expertise, knowledge of marketing to teens, and an understanding of how to reach teens in their language. We want to provide the infrastructure and marketing for organizations to help teens in crisis, and then the third piece is using the data — anonymously of course — from the teens who text in to improve prevention efforts and public health campaigns, and to be able to identify hot spots where issues may be happening.
YP: When the Crisis Text Line is set up, how do you envision it will work?
AG: We’ve heard from partners that when teens start reaching out, there could be several different issues going on. They could text something like “I feel like crap,” and it can take several back and forths to figure out why they feel that way. You don’t know in the first exchange necessarily what’s going on or how to help them, so we’re working with partners to figure out the best way to handle this, whether it’s having general crisis support as the first line of contact and then more focused resources afterwards, or identifying what’s going on and trying to provide them with the right resource right off the bat.
I think we may have a core staff who monitor the flow, but really the texts are going to be handled by our partners, so it’s really about funding and supporting them to be able to have the staff because they’re the experts at counseling teens and we’re the platform, marketers, and data analysts.
YP: Which organizations do you plan to work with?
AG: We’ve been putting together a National Advisory Board so most of the organizations we’ve been talking to are represented there. Someone from The National Domestic Violence Hotline, someone from The Trevor Project, and people from numerous other organizations are on the Advisory Board.
We’re going to have a RFP process for partner organizations and have them apply to be part of the Crisis Text Line and to receive funding and support to be a partner. They’ll then be reviewed by our National Advisory Board, our Board of Directors, and we’re also pulling together a Youth Advisory Board that will start out local but we plan to make it national and we wanted to include them from the beginning.
YP: What will the Youth Advisory Board do?
AG: They’ll be reviewing our plans and making sure that we’re going in the right direction. We want to make our partners happy, we want to do a good job so that people respect this organization, and most of all, we want to make teens want to use it and be served by it, and to love it.
YP: When are you planning to launch the Crisis Text Line and how do you plan to spread the word about it?
AG: We’re very close to finalizing our funding. We have someone who’s pledged $1 million to be matched and we’re talking to several foundations who are interested, so we hope to raise $3-5 million to create this because we know it will take a good amount of money to launch it to scale and to do so quickly. And the worst thing you can do in any type of crisis work is to put a number out of there and then not be there.
As soon as that’s in place, we have a very aggressive six month plan to launch in our first city — we haven’t decided which one yet, so we’ll be doing a lot of the technical build of the project at the same time as putting the RFP out there, reviewing applications, and putting everything in place.
As far as getting the word out, Do Something is great at that. I think our challenge will be that if the word gets out in a huge way, we’ll need to be ready to try and control it a little bit in the beginning so that we can work out bugs and make changes if needed based on how people are responding to it before the volume goes way up.
YP: Do you have plans to reach out to schools and guidance counselors to have this as a resource?
AG: Yes, we’ll be reaching out to everybody. One of the things that Do Something does well is working with celebrities and bringing them in. You’ll probably see that where they help get the word out.
YP: It’s amazing how it unintentionally came out of campaigns for social good, which makes complete sense because Do Something wants to help young people help others and help them help themselves.
AG: I think it goes full circle because very often when teens get involved in volunteerism or causes, it’s a really great inoculator from ending up in crisis too. If you’re engaged, there’s less of a chance you’re going to be doing risky stuff, particularly if you’re doing positive work around social change. And when you’re in crisis or are doing things that aren’t great for you but you get help, you realize you can help others and it can be a logical progression. If we help someone from the Crisis Text Line and then they decide they want to help others, they can get involved in Do Something.
YP: Why do you think texting is so powerful for this purpose?
AG: Teens are constantly texting and especially if they’re in a situation where they feel uncomfortable, texting enables them to be in contact with someone quietly, wherever they are. It’s not like social media that’s apparently social. You can go off into a room and discreetly share something with someone.
It’s definitely a different medium in terms of restricted characters and needing to say things more succinctly. It’s also different in that you could be texting with someone and someone walks into the room and they stop or they catch a bus, but they can come back later. It’s asynchronous since you’re not sitting in front of your computer. You’re more mobile.
YP: From you’re research, are you finding that there are certain issues teens feel more comfortable texting about?
AG: We’ve been doing lots of research about what’s happening in this space right now and talking to the organizations that are using texting about what teens are texting in about, how many back and forths they have before they feel like they’ve helped, and what are the strengths and weakness of the medium.
What we’ve heard from the different hotlines is that a lot of what they get in the beginning are what they’d call “warm” texts about relationship issues, bullying, and things where the teen wasn’t necessarily on the ledge, but as soon as the word started to get out about the organization and they got more texts and became more popular, things quickly went from “warm” to “hot” or a little more serious crisis issues. I’m not sure there’s a particular issue that teens are more comfortable texting about, but more about how the service operates and how comfortable they’re made to feel with the counselors.
YP: Phones are a lifeline for youth today and it seems that’s exactly why the text line will work to help teens and twenty-somethings.
AG: Exactly. Some of the people who use texting most successfully are people in disaster relief areas where it really is a lifeline. When the oil spill happened, they were given the ability to text people to get resources or be counseled. So for teens, it can serve as a lifeline too. I think this medium is something that teens have embraced whole-heartedly and it’s their preferred mode of communication, but it has the potential to be much broader as it can be more widely adopted.
YP: How can people help with the Crisis Text Line in the meantime?
AG: They can definitely donate; we have an IndieGoGo campaign and they can help by sending us ideas. Obviously when we’re closer to launching, we’ll need help getting the word out on any level, and as the Youth Advisory Board becomes more of a national group of 14-25 year olds, we’d love to engage with more young people as well.